On His Deathbed

I often think about the kind of advice I would give if I were on my deathbed.
Because the deathbed advice you hear is often quite different than the advice you get day to day. And that disparity intrigues me.
It makes sense, though, the difference when you look through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
When you’re dying, and you know it, you don’t need food, shelter, or money. The idea of “safety” suddenly become comical. “Power” means nothing. “Fame” is useless.
So instead, your brain leapfrogs up the pyramid and focuses on different priorities.
Love, relationships, and self-respect. Those seem to be the themes of people’s last contemplations.
And then there’s the final burning question, “Did I live a good life?”
I think about this because I’d like to say “yes” to that question. And I suspect being able to say yes doesn’t happen by accident. So, I fling myself into the future. I’m on my bed of death. People whisper to one another, “Not much longer.” They shift about, wanting to do something but knowing there’s nothing they can do. I’m dying, but it’s ok.
I rest there with a satisfied smile looking back to right now.
I remember that I asked myself an important question.
When you don’t need food, shelter, or money; what makes a good life and am I living it?
I suspect happiness lays at the feet of the answer.
– Zac Smith, VC

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Winter’s Work

It’s getting dark earlier and earlier.

The sun sleeps long in the North.

The streetlights come on before I’m home from work.

Eight thirty feels like midnight.

And I love it.

For night is when we dream. Not just in sleepy heads on our beds, but around the table. On the couch. In the car.

When the sun goes down the odds go up.

Dreams feel more possible at night. It brings the things we strive for just a little closer. Makes them realer. Makes them truer.

Be we fools feeling in the dark?

Nay, say I. We are planners, strivers, doers.

Do not decry the fuel that drives our dreams. Let us linger in these longer nights.

Let us chock our talk full of fancies and delights.

The sun will rise soon enough.

Soon Summer will bring days with work.

But it’s Winter now.

So let us live with our dreams.

And perhaps, just maybe, we will reach that which we seek.

– Zac Smith, VC

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You’d Never Guess This About Me

I am a complex being with contradictory feelings and opinions.

I hate eating because it takes me away from whatever I’m working on just to fuel this frail body. It’d be so much easier if food was optional. But I also love eating three-hour lunches and savoring good food.

I love bright sunny days. I love dark damp rainy days.

I enjoy being happy. I enjoy a good cry.

I love challenges and overcoming obstacles on my way to a goal. I love when it’s easy and handed to me.

I love the mountains. I love the beach.

I love reading. I love doing.

I love dogs. I love cats.

I like Coke. Pepsi sucks.

What I like, what works for me, depends on so many variables. I am a complex being. And know what?

I bet you are too.

Know what else?

I bet your customers are too.

Basic psychology teaches us that groups are reasonably predictable, but individuals are not.

Beware investing in over targeted advertising. You’re gambling that your ad is seen by the right person and that it’s also on the right day.

Play the safer spend. Bet on group predictability. And what is it we can predict? What works on the masses?

Be likable. Be memorable. Be there when they need you.

On those three pillars, you can build a marketing strategy that takes over the world.

– Zac Smith, VC

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Houseplants Doomed to Die

If it weren’t for you your houseplants would die. (Although the opposite is true for some people.)
Think about it. A houseplant has no natural access to food, water, or sun. It’s completely dependent on you. It lives or dies by your hand.
Kind of fun to play God, isn’t it? Especially when your plants flourish.
This modus operandi works for home flora, but do you know where it fails?
Small business.
You’ve seen them. The super hero small business owner putting out fires. Solving problems. Kicking butt. Taking names. Always at the ready.
Some business owners love being that person. It makes them feel needed and important. A god in their own universe.
Other business owners are the backbone of everything but for different reasons. Usually, it comes down to control and distrust. If they don’t touch it, how can they be sure it’ll get done right?
Whatever the reason, the result is the same.
No vacations. No retirement. No sellable asset.
From that vantage, being important or in control doesn’t sound so nice.
A business that dies the moment you’re not tending it is a weight around your neck. Perhaps you can carry it for a while, but friend, at some point we all have to swim.
Don’t worry, though. There are things you can do to make your business independently profitable.
And it starts by honestly asking, do I own a business or a houseplant with employees?
– Zac Smith, VC

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Horror Vacui

“Nature abhors a vacuum.”

Perhaps you’ve heard that before.

It’s a postulate attributed to Aristotle. A concept in physics that means nature requires every space to be filled. That there are no naturally-occurring empty spaces because denser surrounding material immediately and always fills a void.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but artists are in love with them. 

A quick Google search will yield a plethora of love note quotes from artists to their vacuums. You just have to know the lingo.

In the visual arts, vacuums are called empty, or white space. And in music, the code word for vacuum is silence.

Here are two such quotes:

“I really believe in empty spaces…Empty space is never-wasted space.” – Andy Warhol

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

If it is indeed true that there are no naturally-occurring empty spaces because surrounding material immediately and always fills a void, then the next natural question is this. 

What exactly is filling the void of empty space and silence?

I believe the answer is “attention.”

As we consume visual and auditory art, it is the silence and space that pulls our attention in. It’s the silence and space that leaves a void our attention must fill.

If you need proof, talk to any parent with a sleeping infant in the car. It’s not the driving that wakes them up.

How can use this to practical effect? (Besides driving baby around the block a few more times to stave off the inevitable.)

If you run radio ads, and the station will let you, put 2-3 seconds of well-placed silence in your ad. Dead air. The effect will be an immediate inrush of attention. Then, just make sure once you’ve got their attention you say something meaningful. 

But again, if the radio station will let you. 

Much like nature, station programmers abhor a vacuum. 

– Zac Smith, VC

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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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