This is Not the Time or Place

I was driving past a manufactured home dealer (the ones that come on wheels) and saw a big brand-new electronic sign. The kind of sign that lets you customize your message with cute little graphics and colors so bright you can blind motorists from 500 yards away.

Certainly, an expensive sign. No expense spared. (I could tell because they obviously paid for the upgraded retina searing hues package.)

So, there I was, getting Lasik while flying by at 55, my attention most assuredly gained, and what did they bother to tell me?

“Like Us on Facebook”

Excuse me?

Like you on Facebook?

Dear Madame or Sir, you have obliterated my night vision, I’m seeing spots, there’s on coming traffic, it’s technically illegal in this State to use my cell phone while driving, and you would like me to search your business name on Facebook and then tap that ol’ like button?

Let’s set aside, for a moment, that “like us on Facebook” is a deeply flawed advertising strategy and message. Even overlooking that, your request is ill-timed and ill-placed.

What effect can you truly hope to achieve with such madness?

And yet, the sad part is, this is not an isolated issue. Over and over again I see small businesses spending good, hard-won dollars, on initiatives doomed to fail.

What can be done?

If you are a small business owner, BEFORE you spend any money on how to deliver your message, make sure what you’re saying is worth spending money to say.

If you are a consultant or ad writer, please don’t let your clients spend their money promoting twaddle and throw away words.

And then, even once you’ve got something good to say, make sure what you’re saying is appropriate for the time and place you’re saying it.

And can someone please dim those dang signs?

– Zac Smith, VC

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The Last Great Resource

You are a natural resource.
 
And not only that, but you’re also some of the last natural resources up for grabs. The last battlefield on which generational wealth can be built in one lifetime. The Jeff Bezos kind of generational wealth.
 
As such, there is a constant war for your eyes and ears.
 
Allow me to explain.
 
All of the great natural resources are tied up. If you’re not already at the table, you can’t get a seat in one lifetime.
 
For example, want to earn billions of dollars mining gold? It’s not going to happen in your life. Yes, perhaps you could scrounge and scrape and set your descendants up for success. But it’s just not happening before you die. Someone else already owns all the gold mines or the rights to the gold in the earth. That was tied up long before you even had a chance.
 
How about oil? Can’t you just drill a well and start pumping? Not in enough quantity. Someone else already tied up the rights to all the major oil deposits in the world long before you even had a chance.
 
Want to be a timber Barron? Someone else already owns all the millions of acres of timber forests. Which means if you started from nothing in the timber industry, in one life you could never amass enough money to buy the millions of acres that you’d need.
 
Go ahead, try any other natural resource. I have yet to find one in which you could start from nothing, collect that resource, and end up becoming one of the richest people on earth in one lifetime. Depressing, I know. All the great natural resources are already owned.
 
Except for you.
 
People – audience – are the last great resource up for grabs. Free to anyone who wants to claim their share. All you have to do is be more interesting or more helpful or more convenient and you can amass an audience.
 
That’s all Jeff Bezos did.
 
He created something, in a garage, that was a better option than what was previously available.
 
And before him, Sam Walton did the same thing.
 
And before Sam, Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck amassed an audience.
 
Google, is one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Their resource? They amassed an audience by being helpful.
 
Mark Zuckerberg?
 
You get the point.
 
Once you have an audience, you can either sell to them yourself, or you can rent out your audience and let others sell to them.
 
But either way, you can do it in one lifetime. Because, unlike gold, oil, and trees, people can get up and walk off. They have a choice.
 
Which leave us with one last question.
 
Are they choosing you?
 
– Zac Smith, VC

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I’m Not Well

I have a personal theory.
 
That being the case, you may choose to disagree with it. On the off chance, though, that it rings true with you, here it is.
 
We are not wells. We are cisterns.
 
Wells produce water. Cisterns hold water.
 
And so too it would seem to be with us humans and our thoughts.
 
Sure, every now and again we’re capable of producing what some would call an original thought. But by and large, we tend more to act as repositories. Cauldrons simmering a bespoke blend of beliefs, ideas, and experiences.
 
It starts when we are tiny. When we’re born our cistern is empty. For good or bad, the people around us tip their cistern into ours. (As a side note, it would seem the thing that makes it “good” or “bad” is not necessarily the information itself, but how we feel about the person who put it there.) And you can’t blame them; for we love when things are made in our image.
 
Then, as we get a little older in school, we start getting to choose some of what goes into our cistern. We express ourselves with electives and activities. And so on and so on into adulthood.
 
Ok. So, if we’re cisterns then what’s the point being made here?
 
When we face a problem or decision, the answer comes from drawing upon the water in our cistern.
 
Do you want to be a more creative problem solver? Then put into your cistern the stories and case studies of the most creative problem solvers history can offer.
 
Do you want to be a better writer? Then pour into your cistern the works of the world’s great writers.
 
Do you want to be a better designer? Then dump into your cistern the finest designs you can find.
 
You can do this with anything. Immerse yourself, fill your cistern, with the thing you want to do better. For so as you fill you will receive. Because I’m not well.
 
I’m cistern.
 
– Zac Smith, VC

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This is The Best Ad

“The best ad is the ad the client will support.”

That’s my answer to this question:

“What advice would you give to a young person who just started a new job as a copywriter for a radio station?”

Actually, that’s only part of the answer. Here’s the full advice in an open letter.

To the unnamed young copywriter,

Very soon you will crack the code on how to write great copy. Of this, I have no doubt. And when that day comes and you are celebrated among your peers as an exquisite creative, only half the battle will be won.

Because here’s the thing; you can be the greatest copywriter in the world, but if your client doesn’t believe in your ad then they’re not going to spend their ad dollars to air it. And then no one will hear your ad.

Which means the best ad is the ad the client will support.

So yes, study writing. Fall in love with writing. Become the best writer you can be. And at the same time learn persuasion. Learn empathy. See the world from your client’s perspective. Meet them where they are. And then guide them to why they too should love your ads.

Remember, being a small business owner is scary. They’ve built their business with blood, sweat, and tears. Their family depends on the business to make ends meet. Their friends and employees and their employees’ families depend on the business to make ends meet.

And so, when they scrape together what few dollars they can to advertise, honor the trust they put in your hands. Don’t despise their fear or apprehension. It’s valid. Instead, show them you understand what’s at stake.

Now go. Put your foot to the path.

You have a bright future ahead of you.

– Zac Smith, VC

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We’re All a Little Insecure

Do children run to you or away from you?
 
What do your friends see in your eyes?
 
Do people find you easy to talk to?
 
Do you put people at ease?
 
Or, in other words, are you approachable?
 
Does it matter?

“As humans, we are all insecure to a certain degree, and we don’t want to risk looking stupid, being rejected, or feeling awkward.”
― Susan C. Young, The Art of Body Language
 
Ok, Susan, a good point, but I’m not seeing the connection to approachableness, let alone a benefit.
 
“When individuals feel comfortable approaching their leaders, their confidence to share ideas, discuss problems, and offer suggestions is strengthened. It emboldens them to take personal ownership and perform at higher levels within the organization.”
― Susan C. Young, The Art of Body Language
 
Oh, I see.
 
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? If employees and team members performed at a higher level.
 
Well then, how do I become approachable?
 
I googled, “how to be approachable.”
 
Know what I found? Articles with titles like, 16 Ways To Become More Approachable. How to Look Approachable. And, The Best Leaders Know These 6 Tricks.
 
All these articles are filled with tips like, “smile, keep your head up, and make good eye contact.”
 
But there’s a problem with these tips. Know what it is?
 
I’ll answer that question with another question. Why do talented actors get paid well?
 
Because acting is hard. It takes years of practice, refining, and coaching to fake a feeling believably.
 
Which means you can follow all the “tips” on how to be approachable, but if you don’t actually like people, you probably won’t pull it off.
 
I mean, look…yes, you should smile. It will help. But real approachableness?
 
You gotta like people.
 
– Zac Smith, VC
 
 

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Nobody Likes the Answer

I fear for small businesses.
 
I’ll tell you why.
 
I’m subscribed to many different “newsletters” and email lists across a broad range of products and services. I do this because I like to see how companies handle their email marketing.
 
Because I’m getting this broad view, I get to see trends that transcend category. And lately, there’s a trend brewing that concerns me.
 
Discounts, sales, and specials.
 
My inbox has veritably been screaming at me SALE! SALE! SALE! BUY ME NOW! NO TIME TO WASTE! DEEPEST DISCOUNTS YET!
 
And not only has the intensity increased, but so has the frequency and the percentage off.
 
They started, a few months ago with 10% off. Then it crept up to 12%…15%…and now 20% off.
 
I weep for them.
 
Despite the fact that we keep hearing that the economy is still growing strong (enough that the Fed is determined to keep raising interest rates) these small businesses are feeling the pinch. Wallets are tightening because of the rise in basic necessities. With a dip in sales volume, they’re dipping into the only trick they know. Have a “sale.”
 
There are problems with this approach.
 
First, a sale does not increase market demand. It only prompts some buyers into buying sooner than they were going to anyway. (Only, at full price.)
 
Second, repeated and frequent sales damage a brand. It trains customers to wait for a sale. Once a brand falls down this hole it’s a long and painful road to climb out, if they even can.
 
So, what’s to be done?
 
You won’t like to answer. Nobody likes the answer. I know this because it’s the same thing Doctors tell their patients every day.
 
Diet and exercise.
 
In marketing, we call this Brand Building.
 
It’s like diet and exercise because it takes time and you don’t see the results right away. But stick to it and your business’s health will get stronger and stronger.
 
Stick to it and you’ll never have to say the word “sale” ever again.
 
– Zac Smith, VC

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Am I Expecting Too Much?

Advertising has a very simple job.
 
Make you the provider people think of first and feel the best about when they need what you sell.
 
That’s it.
 
Advertising can help make the sale happen, but notice I did not say, “Advertising can make the sale.”
 
Wait, what? Am I talking in circles? Splitting hairs?
 
No. The distinction is simple.
 
Advertising can’t make the sale. But it does help people get to the point where a sale is possible. By making you the provider people think of first and feel the best about. But just because they think of you doesn’t mean the sale is made.
 
Thus, “making the sale” is a separate process. The sale is made when there is an ask. The “ask” can come in many forms. We most often see it in things like: low pressure presenting the customer with options, a buy now button, or literally asking for the sale.
 
We can illustrate the difference with two scenarios.
 
Scenario 1: You’re standing at the coffee counter with your friend when you realize you forgot your wallet. Ask your friend if you can borrow $5 and they’ll almost certainly say yes.
 
Scenario 2: You’re standing at the coffee counter when you realize you forgot your wallet. You turn to a stranger and ask if you can borrow $5. Are your odds of them saying yes higher or lower than if they were your friend?
 
Almost certainly lower.
 
Now, if you’re a really good salesperson, maybe you’d have a higher percentage of strangers say yes than someone who’s not good at sales. Either way, though, your sales (the ask for $5) will be vastly more successful if the prospect is your friend.
 
Advertising is the process of turning strangers into friends so that when the time comes to ask them for the sale, you get a yes.
 
What does all of this mean?
 
If you’re asking your advertising to make the sale then you’re expecting too much from your advertising. That’s not its job and it’s not very good at it.
 
Making friends, though?
 
It’s exceptional at that.
 
– Zac Smith, VC

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A Pantheon of Masters

People generally have good reasons for doing the things they do.
 
At least, they have reasons that make sense to them.
 
And that’s the great caveat, isn’t it?
 
People do things that make sense…to themselves.
 
A simple concept with far reaching implications.
 
If people do things that make sense to themselves, then the next natural question is, why does it make sense to them?
 
Whether we’re aware of it or not, you and I serve a pantheon of masters. For each silo, or aspect, of our lives there’s a boss we’ve chosen to let dictate the rules by which we play.
 
The “boss” is anyone or anything that we want to please. The “rules” are the things that please the boss.
 
When someone, or a business, does something that doesn’t make sense to you, that means you probably don’t know who their boss is. You don’t know the rules by which they’re playing.
 
Figure out who the boss is and you’ll know the rules. Know the rules and you’ll better understand why they play the game the way they do.
 
Understanding their why doesn’t mean you have to agree with their reasoning. But it does mean you’ll be in a better position to buy, sell, negotiate, persuade, convince, or meet them in the middle.
 
– Zac Smith, VC

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Weeding Out the Tyrants

“You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.”

An oft-repeated trope?

Perhaps. 

A core truth of business?

Absolutely.

I like to think of it as nature’s way of weeding out the tyrants.
 
Anyone who refuses to hear the words of others will inevitably make more and more self-defeating decisions until…well…nature runs its course.
 
*Implosion*

This happens in government. It happens in relationships. And it happens in business. Since we’re business-focused here, let’s talk about the latter.
 
Are you listening to your customers? Are you reading the reviews, both good and bad? Are you talking to your people who handle the complaint calls?
 
It could be easy to dismiss – especially the complaint calls – since you are the expert in your field. They don’t really understand how it works in this business. You do. And after all, people just want to get one over on you. They always want more and more for less and less. The stupid masses.
 
*Implosion*
 
WAIT! It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s not you vs. the customers. The best businesses create a harmonious relationship. Where the customer acts in your best interest and you act in theirs. It’s possible. It happens every day. And it starts with getting to know your customers’ needs and wants.
 
You do know what your customers need and want, don’t you?
 
Know the best way to find that out?
 
Ask them.
 
An easy place to start asking is with a well-crafted survey that avoids the pitfalls of bias so the responses aren’t skewed. A survey that lets you quickly get to the heart of what’s actually important to the customer.
 
I don’t actually know how to craft a survey like that – yet. My friend, Lena, though is an expert in the science of User Experience and how to craft surveys.
 
Companies and institutions like Texas A&M, Shell, ExxonMobil, Immuta, Google Fiber, Retail and Construction giants, and NASA seek her out and pay absurd amounts of money for scraps of her time.
 
Fortunately for me and you, [tag], she’s an alum of Wizard Academy and has made time to teach us how to create a survey.
 
Her class is called UX 101 – How to Leverage Surveys and she’s teaching it via zoom on August 15th. (here’s your signup link)
 
I’m taking the class and I can’t wait. But look, I’ll make you a deal. If for some reason you can’t make that class, I’ll take my best notes and bring you highlights here in the VC’s Corner.
 
But, you know, it won’t be the same as getting it firsthand.
 
So, click here because you’re not a tyrant.
 
And may nature weed out our competitors.
 
– Zac Smith, VC
 
 
 

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Making Sweet Money Music – Part 2

Last week I talked about how to get everyone in your organization on the same page, just like an Orchestra. (Click here to read it)

Now here’s Part 2. The sad finale to this symphony and what you should NEVER allow your people to do. 

~~~

I’m at the Symphony Orchestra and the intermission is coming to a close. The members of the orchestra are starting to come back onto the stage with their instruments. They are sitting down and running through a few warm up exercises and then it happens again, just like it did earlier in the evening.

The Oboe begins to play the A note. And again, the string section starts tuning up. Next, the brass section. And then again, the lights go down…the conductor walks out to center stage…the audience applauds, his hands go up and for a very, very brief moment…complete silence. 

Here comes that tingle of joy and anticipation again at the base of my spine. The conductor’s arms come down, the orchestra plays, the tingle runs up my spine and once more I hold back a tear of joy.

I look out over the crowd of more than 2,000 people and they are all smiling a smile of joy. I realize that Orchestras are in the joy business and if you could poll this audience right now it would be 5 stars across the board.

It’s profitable to be in the joy business. And the good news? Any business can be in the joy business.

But here is the sad reality of it all.  In the April 1996 issue of Harmony- Forum of the Symphony Orchestra Institute there is a referenced study by Jutta Allmendinger, Richard Hackman, and Erin V. Lehman (1994), Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras: An Interim Report of Research Findings.

The article in Harmony by Seymour and Robert Levine that quotes the above study has a catchier title. “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestra Workplace.”

The study, and article, show that, while orchestra musicians’ internal motivation is higher than any of the other groups studied, their level of general job satisfaction is quite low- below that of even federal prison guards.

I would not have known by the performance they gave. In fact, I wish that I didn’t know that now.

I was buying a part for my car the other day. As I was standing at the counter, two employees behind the counter were talking about an order that had just come in for a customer and he was on his way in to pick it up. The one said to the other, “You better hurry up and go peel off all the labels on the box.”

I have no idea why they would feel like they had to do that, but my imagination could come up with a few reasons and none of them made me feel better about that local business.

Two weeks prior, I was in a suit shop looking for some new threads. It was a slow day and no customers were in at the time, wait…I was a customer and I was there. Two of the employees were talking a little trash about one of the other employees who wasn’t there that day.

Look, no matter the quality of your hires, no one is perfect and there will be times of discord and frustration between you and them, between them and them, and between them and you. But if you intend to be in the joy business then this point must be perfectly clear – while in sight or sound of a customer, NO ONE WILL SPEAK NEGATIVELY ABOUT ANYTHING.

During company meetings, away from any potential customers, is a perfect time for everyone to have an opportunity to express concerns with the purpose to resolve.

Which means if run your business like an orchestra, whenever there is a customer present, you are performing. During your performance you will sing the praises of the boss, the suppliers, and your fellow workers. You will, without hesitation, let the audience know that they are enjoying the best performers in your field.

You will send chills of joy up your customer’s spine and they will reward you with 5-star reviews. Which in turn will reward you with even more market share.

It’s profitable to be in the joy business.

– Zac Smith, VC

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Making Sweet Money Music – Part 1

My favorite part of the symphony is right before the lights go down.
 
You know, the part where the members of the orchestra tune up their instruments.
 
Interestingly, each member could tune their instrument by themselves before they go on stage. They could tune it to a standard and that would be perfectly acceptable; if they were playing by themselves.
 
But for orchestral playing you tune every time so that everyone is on the same tone.
 
The conductor decides ahead of time what everyone will tune by. Traditionally, the oboe will tune the orchestra by playing a long, sustained A. Everyone else is expected to tune according to that note.
 
Can you hear the string section, the violins, the violas, the cellos, the bass, and the harp in noisy cacophony?
 
Next, the flute, the piccolo, the English horn, the clarinet, the bassoon, the trumpet, the trombone, and the tuba.
 
All this noise, so much discord. And then the lights go down. The conductor walks out to center stage. The audience applauds, his hands go up and for a very, very brief moment…complete silence.
 
It is in this moment that a tingle begins to dance at the base of my spine. The conductor’s arms come down, the orchestra leaps to life and that tingle runs all the way up my spine to the base of my neck. A tear of joy moistens the corner of my eye.
 
All the individual moving parts come together to form a singular beautiful thing. These are professionals. This is the result of a cumulative hundreds of thousands of hours of practice and experience and it is moving.
 
Does your business run like an orchestra? Do you have the ability to send a tingle of joy up your customer’s spine?
 
This requires you, as a conductor, to bring together a group of people and orchestrate them. To bring all the moving parts into harmony. You have the receptionist, the sales section, the billing department, customer service, and delivery of the final product or service.
 
How do you orchestrate all these moving parts?
 
You practice.
 
It is critical that you have regular company meetings with everyone. Together.
 
Yes, you should still have your meetings with your sales team and yes you should have meetings with the installers and your meetings with the office crew. But it is critical that you also have a meeting with the entire ensemble so that you all can be tuned to the same tone.
 
What is that tone?
 
Short of having an oboe player on staff, it’s your core company values and beliefs. They need to be understood by everyone in the entire organization. The receptionist who answers the phone should know exactly how the boss would handle the irritated customer on the other end when their A/C just quit working…and your repair tech was already there this morning.
 
“Yes Mr. Jones, you are right, that should not have happened. We will have someone out there within the hour to get you back up and running and of course, no charge to you.”
 
The receptionist can make this decision because they’re a key player in the orchestra and knows the song you are playing. And the only way they can know that is to be there for the practice sessions.
 
Everyone in your organization should be able to make the same call right on cue. Your orchestra should never miss a beat. It should be a thing of beauty. It should bring a tear to your eye.
 
That is how you send a chill of joy up your customer’s spine.
 
– INTERMISSION –
 
Next week we’ll have Part 2: The sad finale to this symphony and what you should NEVER allow your people to do.
 
– Zac Smith, VC

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It’s a Dirty Word – Part 1

Quick, name an actor who would be good at playing a cowboy or soldier.

John Wayne.

Oh, but what if we need an awkward indie teen?

Michael Cera.

And a crazed supervillain…

Christopher Lee.

Any eccentric female in a Tim Burton film… 

Helena Bonham Carter

And one all around badass for good measure…

Samuel L. Jackson.

Am I assembling the most eclectic movie cast ever? Maybe, but that’s not the point. The point is each of the above is an example of typecasting.

Ohhhh typecasting is a dirty word in Hollywood. And it kind of makes sense…I guess. If you’re an actor who can play any role it means you’re better than the other actors? [shoulder shrug]

All I know is what actors call typecasting I call good marketing.

What?

Consider the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of “Typecast.” (Bolding mine)

type·cast

verb – gerund or present participle: typecasting

Assign (an actor or actress) repeatedly to the same type of role, as a result of the appropriateness of their appearance or previous success in such roles.

Which means typecasting is casting an actor in a role because they were the first person you thought of when you thought of that role.

And what, pray tell, is the goal of marketing?

To be the business you think of first (and feel the best about) when you need the thing that business sells.

What does this mean for you, the business owner?

Don’t make Hollywood’s goals your goals if they don’t make sense for you and your business.

If I am, say, a plumber, then my greatest wish should be that I’m typecast as a plumber in the hearts and minds of my customers. 

If I am a jeweler, then my greatest wish should be that I’m typecast as a jeweler in the hearts and minds of my customers. 

If I am a roofer, then my greatest wish should be that I’m typecast as a roofer in the hearts and minds of my customers. And so on and so on.

Makes sense, but how does this little tidbit actually influence your marketing creative?

We’ll answer that question next week. 

– Zac Smith, VC

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