How Writing Actually Works

I realize that title sounds rather definitive.

It’s not.

Really, this is about how writing works for me. How I go from blank page to finished product.

Writing something is like building a dry stacked stone wall.

They’re called “dry stacked” because there’s no mortar in between the stones. Everything is held together by friction and gravity. 

When well done, each stone looks as though it was purpose made for the space it fills.

This, of course, doesn’t happen by accident. The stone mason’s job is to turn a pile of stones into a wall. This is accomplished by careful selection. 

Once the cornerstone is laid, the next stone to follow must make sense. And so on and so on. One after another, the mason sifts through the available stones to find the next one that fits.

There is a stone for every gap that needs filled. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of trying several stones until you find the right one.

And so, stones are your words. They come in all sizes, shapes, and weights. 

Writing is simply a matter of turning words over in your hands, feeling the shape and weight. You try it in a space. If it fits; great. If not, you try another, and another, until each word belongs as if it was always meant to go exactly where you placed it.

It takes time and is the real work of writing.

But here’s the encouraging part.

The only real difference between a master mason and a novice is the speed with which they evaluate the suitability of a given stone. 

It’s not that master masons have better stones. They’re just more efficient at sorting them.

And so too you can write. It might not happen as fast as you would like it to. But if you try enough words on for size you’ll eventually arrive at the right ones.

– Zac Smith, VC

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The 3 Steps to Strong Branding

Do people have a kneejerk reaction, good or bad, when they hear your company name? 

If they do then you have a strong brand.

Are people indifferent to the pronouncement of your name? 

If yes then you might have a weak brand.

If that’s the case and you’re interested in strengthening your brand, here’s the big picture, 3 step roadmap to getting there.

Step 1: Figure out what makes you special. 

I’m not talking about a Unique Selling Proposition (USP). 

99% of the time, how you sell your products isn’t all that unique. But why you sell your products? Now that’s something people will pay attention to. 

You don’t need a USP, you need a Unique Perspective. Or in other words, the thing that makes you stand out is the perspective (or angle) you approach your business from.

This is never a mission statement generality, like “hardest working,” “quality,” “fairness,” “honesty.” And the reason it can’t be those types of things is that EVERYONE says them.

Remember, we’re talking about something unique. It’s not unique if every other business also claims to be the thing.

Instead, think of unique and sometimes quirky personality traits. Because if your brand is personality driven, then it can’t be copied by your competitors.

Step 2: Distill your brand personality.

The thing that makes you special must be distilled into an easy to digest nugget. 

People have more than enough going on in their lives to keep their awareness full and occupied.

To have a shot at claiming some mental real estate, your brand has to be piercingly clear and easy to remember.

How do you make your brand easy to remember?

Focus on one thing and focus hard.

Yes, you probably have seven or more good traits that could define your brand. But if you say them all then there’s too much to keep track of in the mind of your customer. 

It’s easier to remember one thing than it is to remember seven things. 

Step 3: Align your messaging.

Building a strong brand means aligning your messaging throughout all communication channels so your customers have a seamless interaction from start to finish.

You can’t be bubbly and playful on social, professional and detail oriented on the radio, flippant on the phone, direct in your emails, and nice and normal in person.

You know the one personality trait you committed to in Step 2 above? Well, you need to be that, and only that, at every customer touch point.

This strengthens and reinforces your brand. Which makes it easier and easier for people to remember you.

And when you’re easy to remember it’s easier to get the business and the sale.

– Zac Smith, VC

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What’s Your Brand? (And what are you supposed to do with it?)

What is a brand?

According to Investopedia, “the term brand refers to a business and marketing concept that helps people identify a particular company, product, or individual. Brands are intangible, which means you can’t actually touch or see them.”

That’s a semi-helpful definition, but it still leaves it a little washy. Let’s be more concrete.

A brand is the sum total of what your customer thinks and feels when they hear your name.

As such, you have some – but not total – control over your brand. Yes, you guide and direct it by what you say and do, but you don’t get the final say. (A terrifying thought and topic for another day.)

Now that we’ve defined what we’re talking about, what are you supposed to do with your brand? How do you wield it?

Simon Sinek helped us out when he said, “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

In essence, you can use your brand as a banner to tell people what you believe. You wave that banner anytime you put your brand in front of eyeballs and ears. Advertising is generally, but not always, the most effective way to get your brand in front of people.

The stronger your brand the quicker you attract people who believe what you believe when they need what you sell. 

That’s because brand strength or weakness is really just about the clarity of thought and feeling you evoke in your customer. 

Do people have a kneejerk reaction, good or bad, when they hear your company name? Then you have a strong brand.

Are people indifferent to the pronouncement of your name? Then you might have a weak brand.

If that’s the case and you’re interested in strengthening your brand, then let’s talk about the big-picture roadmap to doing so next week.

– Zac Smith, VC

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The Best Email Marketing Service?

Vice Chancellor of Campus, Dave Young, and I taught an email content marketing class not too long ago.
A question came up about what’s the best email marketing service to use. (I’m talking about companies like ActiveCampaign, MailChimp, Moosend, Constant, CleverReach, etc.)
Here’s what I’ve found to be true and how to use a process of elimination when selecting the best fit for you.
Step 1. Start by figuring out what email marketing services will seamlessly pair with your website.
For example, do you use WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, or Weebly? There’s a chance they have a “preferred” email service or services they like working with.
Or, if you’re not doing this yourself, does your in-house tech nerd have a preferred email service?
Either way, going with the preferred options will eliminate a lot of headaches and you’ll get a more seamless integration.
Step 2. Of the options that make it through the first test, figure out which service has the functionality you want.
What do you want to do with your email marketing?

For example, do you need automated email drips, list segmentation, automatic list cleaning from inactive or bounced subscribers, deeply integrated e-commerce, CRM integrations, all of the above, or something else?
Define your needs and then shop for who can fulfill them best.
Step 3. If there are any options left from the above two rounds of culling, go with who has the best email deliverability.
Deliverability is a super important and often overlooked metric when it comes to how successful your email marketing will be. You could have the best subject lines and content ever put into an email, but if a high percentage of your emails are getting blocked, then it doesn’t matter.
Now, there are a lot of things you have to do to make sure your emails are deliverable. However, the email marketing service you choose can play a big role as well. (Check out this article from EmailToolTester to see which service has the best email deliverability.
Step 4. It’s unlikely you have more than one choice at this point, but if you do, then go with the more cost-effective option.
And that’s it.

That’s my process of elimination for selecting an email marketing service.

– Zac Smith, VC

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Three Pounds of Gooification

I didn’t realize how little information I actually know until the Wi-Fi went out.

I didn’t realize I didn’t know my wife’s phone number until my phone died and I needed to call her.

I didn’t realize how many places I don’t know how to get to until I didn’t have GPS.

When did this happen? Is it just me?

My brain became a sieve. There must be a trail of bits and pieces of information littering the ground behind me. Dates, names, passwords, snippets of conversation just dribbling out my ears.

It’s like my brain decided it’s pointless to hold onto information when I can reach in my pocket and look up anything I could ever need to know on demand. The problem is, not everything is look-up-able. 

But good luck telling my brain that. It seems to have cleaned house and the baby went out with the bath water. 

I’ve suspected that I was sliding for a while. But as is often the case with gradual decline, it’s easy to ignore the post rot until one day the front porch collapses.

I’ve decided to mount an offense on this gooification of my three pounds of gray matter. 

I’m going to crunch word puzzles like they’re Grape Nuts. I’m going to bench press books like a body builder. I’m going to swim through sudoku like a really good swim person.

Oh, dear God, this is going to be an uphill battle.

Here goes, the aptly called, nothing.

– Zac Smith, VC

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75 and Still Wastin’ Away a Fortune

Was recently at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Still have the music bouncing around in my head. Cue up Margaritaville



Thinkin’ bout music,

It feels like magic.

So many notes, I can’t even read.

Don’t understand it.

Can’t even sing it.

It moves my foot to just the right speed…

(You got this part) …Wastin’ away again in…

Fascinating to watch 23,000 mostly senior citizens with aches and pains, miraculously moving and grooving to the music of a five-foot seven-inch tall 75-year-old.

It’s magic.

Music moves people to do things they would never do without it.

Which means there’s opportunity here.

What would happen if you integrated music into your business? How would you even do that?

I know I shouldn’t be doing this right now in the middle of a concert, but I have my phone and google is just begging me to ask.

Google, how old is Mick Jaggar and what is his net worth?

78-years-old and $500 million with eleven number one albums.

Google, how old is Sting and what is his net worth?

70-years-old and $400 million with six number one albums.

Google, how old is Jimmy Buffett and what is his net worth?

75-years-old and $900 million with zero number one albums.

Jimmy isn’t nearly the musician as Mick and Sting are. So, why is Jimmy worth as much as both of them combined?

Jimmy is a businessman.

Most of his money comes from businesses that are not associated with the music industry. But, and this is a big but, his music reinforces the feelings associated with his businesses. The message in his music is consistent with the vibe of his businesses.

Being a musician can make you money. However, integrating music into a business plan can make you piles of money.

The music doesn’t even have to be that good, it just has to move people.

Buffett’s music calls out his people. Then he introduces those people to other products and services that reinforces who they identify as.

The music associated with your business needs to help people feel good about you and your product or service. And, more importantly, it needs to reinforce identity.

How do you do that?

Start by finding a style of music that best fits your business’ personality. Listen to that music, feel the music, absorb the vibe. Consciously do this for at least a week or two.

Next, gently place that music anywhere you can without it being annoying. Websites, instructional videos, places of business, television and radio ads. This should be background music. You’re not selling the music; you’re reinforcing your company’s personality.

“But I only use print for my business, I have no place to put music.”

No worries, find someone who can write to the beat of your song. Someone who can tap out your music on the keyboard of computer.

Words have rhythm and when strung together properly, they move people as surely as Buffett does.

– Zac Smith, VC

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A Time and Place for Comfort

I don’t believe comfort zones are at all bad.

Like anything, there is a time and place for them.

It seems ever more frequently we’re swallowed into the go-go-go, expand, reach, extend, and hustle. Always more to do, more to grab, more to get.

The fact of the matter is, we’re not built to sustain that pace indefinitely. And so, it is the comfort zone that offers refuge and reprieve. It’s the comfort zone that allows us to catch our breath; to recoup.

The negative stigma around staying in your comfort zone stems from the chronically dissatisfied. To them, the comfort zone is the land of the lazy.

However, contentedness is an undervalued quality. The truly content are at peace. Their sleep is unintruded. The zone of comfort is their abode.

Which is why I would venture to say, getting out of your comfort zone is only advice for the unsatisfied, or for those in need of growth. In which case, yes, stretch beyond your comfort zone.

My views may be unpopular. But I’ll risk it in a time when most just need a break.

And they need to hear that it’s ok to need a break.

– Zac Smith, VC

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You’ll win. They’ll win. Happy happy.

Is it self-serving to keep the people you work with happy because you get more and better work out of a happy team?

Whatever way you feel about the answer to that question, it doesn’t change the fact that happy people do work better.

Which is why, I believe, the greatest of care must be taken when handling feedback of a person’s idea. Especially when you think someone’s idea is “stupid.” Doubly so when you’re in a hurry. And thricely so if you’re the one who asked for their opinion.


Ideas carry tiny pieces of identity.

Which is why you cannot wholly detach someone’s idea from the person themselves.

How you respond to their idea has a direct correlation to how you make them feel. And how do you want to make them feel?

Happy. Remember?

Because when everyone is happy, you’ll get a free flow of ideas. And it is quantity of ideas that’ll give you the best solution the fastest.

So, always tread with grace when responding to ideas. Even if it’s a dumb idea, you can still respond in such a way as to dignify the progenitor.

You’ll win. They’ll win. And everyone will be happy happy.

– Zac Smith, VC

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If Then…Include a Picture

If when writing a description of something and there’s even a slight chance your audience might not be familiar with the thing, then include a picture.

If your writing ability falls short in the description area, then include a picture.

If you’re a great writer and descriptions ooze out of your pores, then you can still include a picture.

For example, if I told you that a Bedlington Terrier looks more like a sheep than a dog, you’d have a general idea of what I mean. But how much better if I also showed you a picture of one?

There seems to be a long-held belief that good writing – serious writing – and pictures are somehow mutually exclusive.

I don’t know who started that rumor. It’s not true. Use pictures.

They’ll adorn good wordsmithing and salvage poor writing.

– Zac Smith, VC

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Your Logo Isn’t Sexy

The faster you can communicate an idea, the more impactful it will be.
Shorter hits harder.
But not at the cost of clarity.
Clarity supersedes brevity.
Which means if no one knows what you’re talking about, then it doesn’t matter how fast you can say it.
Logos are perfect examples of this at work.
For example, what company is this logo for?

It’s a simple logo. Gets straight to the point. Shorter hits harder. But to the point of what?

Based on only the logo, can you tell me who this company is or what they do?

Nope and no. (It’s Uber’s logo from 2016, if you were curious.) In this case, shorter did not hit harder.

How about this one?

Or this one?

Or this one?

And this one?

You know all these logos. You know who they are and what they do. In these instances, shorter does hit harder.

But here’s an interesting tidbit. Look at this progression of Starbucks Logos.

They didn’t start out “shorter,” did they? And for good reason. If they had used their current logo in 1971 no one would have known who they were or what they did.

There would have been no clarity.

What’s this mean for you?

Don’t fall into the trap of going after “sexy” minimalist logos unless you’ve been around for decades, all the while spending hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising.

It probably won’t work. You’re not that famous. You don’t get a sexy logo.

On the national scale, you’re an unknown brand. Take a play from Starbucks’ earlier logos. For 40 years they told us who they are and what they do. The logo had their name and the word “coffee,” which is all we needed to know.

It wasn’t “sexy” but it did work.

If you’re in the process of designing or redesigning your logo, ask yourself; can someone tell who you are and what you do from a quick glance at your logo?

If they can, then you’ve got a hard-working logo that’ll serve you well.

And as a small business nothing could be sexier than that.

– Zac Smith, VC

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Captain’s Log: Not all Waters Well

Last week we talked about how to use common interests to connect with your customers.

Some wonder, though, what kind of interests should you share?

The great Simon Sinek said, “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

So, what do you believe?

Follow up question: which of your interests best represent what you believe?

Start sharing there.

Does that thought scare you? The idea of being a little vulnerable? Sharing your personal interests with the world?

It should scare you, but in a healthy kind of way. The kind of way that recognizes what you’re getting into.

Here’s the deal, if you’re a business owner you are the captain of the ship.

Your ship is not welcome in all waters. Not every port will peddle your wares.

But that’s a captain’s job, isn’t it? To know where you’re accepted and where you’re not. To brave the scorn of those who aren’t your people.

Oh yes, people will scorn you. But remember, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.

And believe me, there are plenty enough of those people to make you successful beyond your wildest dreams.

– Zac Smith, VC

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A Friendly Anchor

“Relationships are relationships.”

That’s from a fascinating NPR news article, Life Kit: How to keep long-distance friendships strong, by Kavitha George.

According to relationship expert Marissa G. Franco, who was interviewed for the article, she’s learned from studying friendship, that there’s not really hard lines.

I agree with her.

Whether you’re talking about friendships, romantic relationships, or even the relationship you have with your customers, there’s something universal about two humans interacting.

So then, what nugget on customer relations can we glean from advice on long-distance friendships?

Use common interests to stay connected…This shared interest is called an anchor, and it doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it helps you initiate a connection.” – Marissa G. Franco

You remember the kind of questions you used to ask as a kid to make new friends?

  • What’s your favorite color?
  • What music do you like?
  • What games do you play?
  • Do you have siblings?
  • What’s your favorite subject?
  • Do you like to play sports?
  • What’s your favorite food?

You would roll through your list of questions until finally you found a topic you both agreed on.

Bam! New best friend.

A slight overstatement, but not by much. Common interest is a powerful connector.

And yet, once we grow up and have to create messaging to connect with our customers, we tend to keep the focus of topic narrow. Usually, just to where the customer’s life overlaps with our business category.

But here’s the thing, “Relationships are relationships.”

Be ye bold enough to venture outside your comfort zone and share a personal interest? Even if it has nothing to do with your business?

You might just be surprised at how much connection you’ll find.

Which raises the question, what kind of shared interests are the most profitable?

We’ll explore that next week.

– Zac Smith, VC

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