Archive for Category ‘Business Strategy‘

The Limiting Factor: Thoughts on the Coaching Relationship

Is there a single factor that keeps entrepreneurs and high potential employees from achieving their potential? I believe there is.

I’ve coached around 400 entrepreneurs and high potential employees over the past 15 years. As I think back, I’m truly amazed and humbled at the variety of situations, personalities, resources, mindsets, teams, markets, products, and organizations that I’ve worked with.

Early in my career, I was often giddy with the tools of the coaching trade that I’d studied and mastered. And in my eagerness to help (and let’s be honest, impress) my clients, I would frequently pull out all the stops.

Our coaching sessions were fast and furious affairs. We’d work on direct marketing strategy, copywriting, time management, diet, exercise, and mental stamina.

And these sessions weren’t ineffective. Frequently one of the issues we’d tackle would provide a breakthrough: a better understanding of the prospect, a better way of phrasing a benefit or presenting an offer, a technique to get two more productive hours out of each workday, etc.

But while those benefits were accruing, I was subtly but unmistakeably doing something not so smart: contributing to my client’s overwhelm.

Even the wins couldn’t erase the feeling of “not enough” that came from waging so many battles simultaneously.
Cliffhanger? Keep reading…

Marketing Struggles of Holistic Practitioners (and everyone else)

I’m a new-age-y kind of guy, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the people who gravitate to my marketing advice are what you might term “holistic practitioners.”

Folks who do massage therapy, counseling, reiki, permaculture, shamanic work (like my wife), body therapies, life coaching, and all sorts of similar things.

And I give these folks all I’ve got, but I’m not an expert at marketing a business like that. My one attempt, in 1990, was to get certified as a massage therapist and drag a portable massage chair to the front desk of a Merrill Lynch office in Plainsboro, New Jersey hoping to land a lucrative corporate contract.

But my friend Tad Hargrave is such an expert.

He and I had a delightful conversation a couple of nights ago about the challenges holistic practitioners face (both external and internal) as well as the mistakes they typically make in response to those challenges.

At one point I was struck by the similarities between holistic practitioners and wannabe online marketing millionaires. On the surface, I can’t think of two groups less similar to each other. (OK, so maybe Twilight and Chuck Norris fans.)

Yet the underlying dynamic of desire, hope, come-on, failure, and attribution of blame are virtually the same.

Here’s the conversation for you to download in mp3 format.

There’s one fairly annoying section where Skype and the South African internet conspired to make Tad sound like a bad robot, but if you just do some alternative nostril breathing during that short section you’ll get through it fine.

Oh, and at the end of the call Tad talks about a telecourse he’s offering that starts tomorrow. So if the first few minutes of the call speaks loudly to your current situation, make sure you listen all the way through to grab one of the remaining slots.

And if you want to check out the offer straight away, you can go here:

(Note the non-affiliate link – I’m doing this strictly for the karma points :)

Marketing Lessons from Cake Boss

What if your business was a reality show, and you couldn’t hide anything from your prospects and customers?

My kids spent a few weeks watching as many episodes of Cake Boss as they could, and I have to admit that once I started watching over their shoulders, I was hooked.

In case you’re as clueless about Cake Boss as I would be sans offspring, here’s the synopsis offered by TLC, the channel that airs the show:

“Buddy Valastro is the Cake Boss. Renowned cake artist and master baker of Carlo’s Bakery, he manages a team including his mother, four sisters & three brothers-in-law. And, when you’re working with family every day, there’s bound to be a lot of drama.”

That, I soon discovered, is putting it mildly.

Family members screaming at each other. Semi-abusive management techniques. Violent reactions to setbacks. People slamming doors and dropping cakes and messing up the frosting. Who in their right mind would want to do business with this crazy family?

And yet…

Every show ends with a beautiful – I mean stunningly incredible – cake being delivered on time and on budget to exactly the right location.

Suspense and Happy Endings

What the viewing audience finds so fascinating, of course, is not the happy ending. The resolution is satisfying, and often breathtaking, because Buddy is in fact a skilled baker and cake artist. But just watching a cake being designed and baked and constructed is like going to the movies just to watch the happy ending.

It’s the 110 minutes of roller-coaster suspense, false starts, dashed hopes, and degradations that make the happy ending so powerful. Salvation without the constant threat of damnation is just boring.

OK, so Cake Boss makes for good theater. But still, that kind of up-close-and-personal scrutiny can’t be good for Buddy’s business, can it?

Are Prospects OK with Imperfection?

Disclaimer: I actually have no idea if Buddy is a batter-and-frosting billionaire, or just one step ahead of the taxman.

But my educated guess is that the TV show has been an incredible boon to his business.

Despite the rudeness and nastiness and occasional sloppiness and incompetence caught in the unforgiving and ever-remembering camera lens.


Or partly because of?

As Seen on Reality TV

You see, with Cake Boss, the prospect feels like they know exactly what they’ll get. Buddy and his family aren’t hiding anything. They can’t hide anything – they’re on reality TV.

If you order a Cake Boss cake, you know the end product will be fantastic, regardless of the drama it takes to make it.

Not only do you end up with a fabulous cake, you also get the intangible story of the cake, which you get to share with friends and family to make it – and you – that much cooler.

We don’t want products anymore. We want experiences. We want stories. We want totems – physical items that have been magically imbued with someone else’s JuJu so we can bask in their vibrations.

Business Storytelling

My friend and mentor Sharon Livingston of has a wonderful practice in which she interviews business owners about their businesses. But she doesn’t ask things like, “What differentiates you from the competition?” As important as that question is, YAWN.

Instead, she asks, “What were you like as a kid? When did you know you wanted to go into this business or profession? What excites you about it?”

She elicits stories and puts a human face on a product or service. She makes us care about the person first, and then we’re naturally drawn to their business.

We see the passion that underlies the goods and services. We hear the emotion in their voice. We find out about setbacks, about struggles, and about practice-makes-perfect expertise.

And the messy, non-perfect bits don’t stand in the way of the sale, as long as the professionalism and quality are there. In fact, they enhance the sale. The more is revealed, the less we worry about what’s being hidden from us.

Fly Your Dirty Linen Proudly

So what are you hiding and trying to spin in your business?

About yourself?

Most of it is probably not as bad as you think.

(Please note, there’s a fine but very real line separating secrecy from privacy. I’m not suggesting you blog about your collection of pre-owned nipple rings. Some things really ARE better left to the imagination.)

My friend Peter Bregman writes convincingly in his upcoming book, 18 Minutes (pre-order from that link, it’s that good), of the power of embracing your weaknesses.

In marketing, embracing means sharing them freely. Admitting that you’re – gasp – not perfect.

And then showing how those imperfections make you more approachable, more engaging, and more able to deliver the experience your prospect wants.

We’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for connection.

So even if your business isn’t on reality TV, you can still be Real in your marketing.

You’ll inspire confidence. You’ll stand out. And you’ll have way more fun than if you try to keep it all safety tucked away.

Let us raise our glasses to messy authenticity, and say, “Holy Cannoli!”


The Most Misleading Number in Business

My friend and business mentor Danny Warshay of and I had our bi-weekly “intimate-phone-chat-that-we-record-and-send-to-anyone-who-will-listen” on Monday.

Danny Warshay Action Danny teaches entrepreneurship at Brown University, the only Ivy League school named after the first word of a Van Morrison song title, and he is an alum of Harvard Business School, which impresses you even if you won’t admit it.

Plus he spent a few years in brand management at Procter & Gamble.

Plus he’s a serial start-up guy, lending his talents to a bunch of new ventures in publishing, natural health, engineering, and so on.

Plus plus he travels around the world teaching and consulting on entrepreneurship, from China to Egypt to Portugal to Israel to I can’t even keep track of where else.

So when we got on the horn to talk about what he calls “bottom up research,” I was all ears.

My Beginner Entrepreneurial Mistake

And when – this was totally unrehearsed – I mentioned an early mistake I made when I was first starting out on my own, I got Danny onto his soapbox in a big way. It starts at 4 minutes 30 seconds in the audio (below).

Danny’s mild-mannered, calm, earnest demeanor vanished as he ranted about how many times he hears otherwise savvy entrepreneurs pull out this particular number – the one I had used – to justify their business plan to themselves, to partners and to investors.

In the process, you’ll discover how to conduct free research that’s arguably more valuable than anything you can buy or commission. Danny shares two examples of “bottom up research” from his P&G days, showing how Tide and Dawn teams innovated based on this method of research that’s available to all of us, regardless of how pinched our pennies.

Click the arrow below for a short course in entrepreneurship from one of the leading teachers in the US. Or click the blue link to download the MP3 for listening at your leisure:

Click here to download the Danny Warshay “Bottom Up Research” Interview

Don’t Blame the Moths

I’m reading A Book of Bees, by Sue Hubbell. Today she talked about some threats to the health of beehives, including various kinds of moths who lay their eggs in empty hive cells.

Lots of amateur beekeepers, upon losing their hives to infestation, shake their heads and mutter, “The moths got ’em.”

Hubbell has little sympathy for this fatalistic view.

Strong hives have nothing to fear from moths, she explains. They can spare the resources to defend themselves.

It’s the weak, poorly tended, over-stressed hives that succumb to the moths.

The moths aren’t the cause of the problem. They’re just an opportunistic symptom.

What are your business moths?


Sluggish demand in a recessionary economy?

Expensive advertising?

Here’s the good news: these factors are at play throughout your industry. The moths didn’t just choose your hive.They’re flapping around everywhere, looking for opportunity to deposit their voracious larvae into any business unable to defend itself.

And in terms of the moth of competition, there’s a simply prevention you can implement all by yourself.

Be so different that the term “competition” becomes ludicrous.

Why being different is more important than ever

According to Ad Age, Google is offering flat rate advertising options in two test markets, San Diego and San Francisco. They’ve figured out that most small businesses, no matter how hungry they are to appear on the first page of Google, will simply not participate in an advertising program that requires reading a 408-page For Dummies book just to get in the game. So they’re experimenting with a solution that’s as simple as the old Yellow Pages ad: tell us what you do, sign the check here, and forget about it.

Google sets its bids and keywords based on – guess what – the data they’ve gleaned from all the advertisers currently in that marketplace.

You can cry about it if you like, but that isn’t going to put rosemary and tarragon olive oil on your bread tonight.

The signs are everywhere – AdWords is getting dumbed down so ordinary people (the ones who don’t read blog posts about marketing) can participate. (Don’t believe me? Just check your brilliantly researched “long tail” keyword list to see how many keywords Google has disallowed because they don’t get enough searches.)

Let’s look at the reductio ad absurdum here: AdWords becomes just like the Yellow Pages, with fixed rates and Google’s own “ad specialists” writing most of the ads (this time supported by data rather than “what looks nice”).

How do you win in such an environment, where the old AdWords advantages have all faded away?

By being extraordinarily different. By standing out. By knowing your customers’ hearts and minds better than they know themselves. By developing relationships of trust, loyalty, and reciprocity so they get the most value (goods and services) from you while you get the most value (money) from them.

Yes, there will always be room for AdWords brilliance. Just listen to my interview with Richard Stokes of, in which he demonstrates how to use competitive research to enter any market and be profitable within one week (yes, it took my breath away). (The interview is in the Ring of Fire, so if you’re not a member yet, go here to try it for a month for just $20.)

But the DNA of marketing is not in tricks. Not even in data.

No, the DNA of marketing is your unique spirit. Your unique voice. Your unique expression of life itself.

Marketing is Unlearning

Ultimately, the craft of marketing is simply unlearning almost everything you learned as a child, as a student, as a young adult, about conformity.

And unlearning almost everything you picked up about knee-jerk non-conformity.

Becoming aware enough of yourself to know yourself, and to then enter into relation with others as an authentic source of knowledge, inspiration, and help.

Being solid and grounded enough to listen, really listen, to customer feedback. Even if it hurts.

Being strong enough to ignore and reject criticism and praise that tries to pull you away from your core essence. That seeks to shame or flatter you into pleasing others, rather than serving the world through your own joy and power.

Market from that place, and the moths can’t touch you.

Vegans, Delicious Animals, and Gurus

I’m basically a vegan (eating no animal products, including eggs and dairy). It’s not a rigid stance – I overlook eggs in baked goods sometimes, have a nice piece of fish about twice a month, and occasionally attack the leftover veggies in my wife Mia’s Thai chicken soup (and not complaining if a bit of Henny Penny finds her way in as well).

Mia warned me before we left, “It’s going to be hard eating vegan in Africa.”

Once we arrived, I saw what she meant.

In Africa, Food = Meat

South Africans who can afford it eat meat with every meal. Or, more accurately, eat meat AS every meal.

At Chippa’s butchery and take-away, in a migrant worker squatter camp in Mbekweni, the only non-meat items are a hunk of bread and a whole tomato. But no one orders them, even as accompaniments, because to do so would lower your status by showing that you can’t afford the barbecued meat that dominates the menu.

At one popular chain restaurant, Spur Steak Ranch, the only dish on the menu that didn’t contain meat was the lemonade.

At another, Ocean Basket, there was some semblance of veggie sushi (smothered in mayo!), as well as a Greek salad in which the feta could be substituted for avocado on an irregular basis (easier in big cities), but the fried fish smelled sooo good…

Meet the Meat

Here’s the thing: all across Africa, I saw free range animals living pretty good lives. Cattle lounged in huge pastures (or in the middle of the highway separating their grazing land), looking up incuriously as we motored by.

On the desert-like farms in Namibia and the Northern Cape province of South Africa, the land produces almost nothing edible to humans (the San hunter-gatherers could reliably scratch out a living here, but they learned to siphon water from hidden roots and make dart poison from beetle juice, hardly skills being passed on in the general population).

If the land is to support human habitation, it has to do so in the form of meat. As my wife’s relatives used to say, “If you want to eat a vegetable, kill a sheep.” The sheep has already processed the vegetables you crave.

Howie Eats Meat (and Lots of It)

Given a choice between canned goods or unripe produce trucked a thousand kilometers from Cape Town or a local cut of mutton or game (springbok, gemsbok and kudu made my top 3 list), I opted to become a carnivore for a while.

Mia gleefully snapped photo after photo of me tearing into gemsbok biltong (dried meat with spices, a relative of jerky but really no comparison so I’ve been told). We kept a bag of biltong chips in the well between the front two seats of the car, and I frequently polished off more animal protein in an 8-hour drive than I’ve probably eaten in the past six years.

So this wasn’t some perfunctory nod at fitting in; it had become a full-blown identity shift. I was no longer a vegan.

The Prodigal Son Returns to His Roots (Potatoes and Carrots)

Until we arrived in Paarl, at Mia’s cousin’s farm. Salome, her first cousin, and her family had stayed with us in New Jersey in December 2000. During that visit, Salome reminded me, I had converted her to vegetarianism.

Salome was so excited about our stay at her farm, partly because she would no longer be the only vegetarian in an aggressively carnivorous family culture (the farm consists of several estates, all owned by her husband’s relatives).

Since she mentioned that to me, I haven’t touched another piece of meat. Or fish. Heck, I even stopped sneaking the wonderful chocolate candies that make Hershey’s pale by comparison (Tex, Aero, Smarties being the three main contributors to my manly love handles).

In short, I was back on my game.

Partly, it was the environment. The areas near Cape Town are like the lushest regions of California, capable of growing commercial quantities of citrus, guava, grapes, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables, as well as gardens including avocado trees.

But mostly, truth be told, it was the powerful appeal to my identity as the King Vegetarian that set me back on the path of vegan righteousness. Despite my principles and habits, the Howie who runs and preaches about healthy plant-based eating simply faded away under the setting sun on a Namibian sheep farm. That persona was unsustainable.

But it arose, Lazarusian, under the gentle watering of an acolyte; my cousin-in-law who innocently stated her expectations and stepped back as I fulfilled them.

The Power of Your Referent Group

Now maybe you’re different from me, able to sustain your behavior no matter what your environment. If so, you’re reading this with a mixture of pity, amusement, and disgust.

But if this rings a bell, then I think you and I need to acknowledge the single most powerful force in determining what we do: who they people around us expect us to be.

That is to say, if you want to act a certain way, surround yourself with people who model that behavior and see it as normal and unremarkable.

Beware the Guru

In the world of online marketing, we have many opportunities to join the followers of brilliant marketing gurus whose every project turns to gold. That may seem like a referent group, but unless we can get past our worship of the guru as someone other than ourselves (smarter, luckier, pluckier, having a better rags-to-riches story, etc.), we’re not really in an uplifting referent group.

The Guru Business sort of demands that kind of positioning. I feel the pressure in my own teaching, coaching and consulting practice to throw in little hints of my wonderful successes and fabulous lifestyle, whether accurate or embellishes (or utterly misleading).

Even the fact of a trip to Africa sends that not-so-subtle message, “I can afford a trip to Africa” that may set up a reader to see me as something greater than I am (and more to the point, greater than them). If they let it.

That kind of relationship will only keep you down, no matter how smart the guru or how generous or skilled.

I Was a Frisbee God

My first job out of college was teaching history and gym at Princeton Day School. I started an Ultimate Frisbee team, and attracted some very accomplished athletes. But they had never played before. I amazed them with my cornucopia of throws – hammer, finger flick, air bounce – and with my leaping grabs and defensive blocks. I was a god to them.

Over the years, some of these students went on to play at levels much higher than I ever attained. College, regional club teams, nationals. I was so not in their league any more.

Yet when they returned to Princeton for the summer, I could still handle them. No matter that they were younger, faster, better. They still saw me as a god, and conferred upon me the power to best them. I kept them from reaching their potential as long as they saw me in that unrealistic light.

So, if you want to master the mindsets, skill sets, and habits that will produce a successful online business, make sure you find a teacher who doesn’t build up their own aura to make you smaller, and find a group of helpful practitioners for whom online marketing is serious stuff, but no big deal.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a carrot.

PS The Ring of Fire is a great place to hang out with seriously fun AdWords and online marketing practitioners. First month for as little as $20.

“Bad Boy, Fido!”

This week, Jon Tierney reported in the New York Times on several studies that suggest animals feel genuine regret when they miss an opportunity and remorse when they do something wrong.
So when Fido looks up at you with those big sad brown eyes, tucks his tail, and whimpers in sorrow after you say something like, “How could you do that to the Karastan rug again?!”, he may actually be feeling, well, bad inside.
Maybe it’s not surprising that dogs can take on what we assume to be human emotions – after all, they’ve been hanging out with us for thousands of years. If they can wear sweaters and attend daycare with TVs on the walls, why can’t they also pick up a little human guilt?

Not Just Dogs

But other species also appear to have regret hard-wired into their systems. Monkeys who incorrectly guessed the location of a large prize of juice showed brain activity that registered the missed opportunity. They appear to be fretting about “what might have been.”

Psychologists have known for a long time that learning capacity increases in humans when emotions are heightened. So it makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, for an animal who learns something “the hard way” to reinforce that new information with a strong accompanying emotion.

Pick the wrong tree to look for fruit too many times, and kiss your chances of passing on your genes goodbye. Better to feel bad and learn quicker than to be totally happy-go-lucky and perenially clueless.

Love is Having to Say You’re Sorry

Another important element of feeling bad is demonstrating to those you’ve offended that you’re sorry. Animals who rely on their social groups for survival can’t afford to be ostracized. So when a coyote pup bites too hard in a rough and tumble play fight with its mates, it needs to show the others that it won’t do that again.
Janine Benyus, in her remarkable book Biomimicry, suggests that one of the most important benefits of animals forming social groups was shared risk. When a troop of monkeys came to a new plant, not all of them would immediately start munching. Instead, one or two of them would take a few tentative bites. If the intrepid testers didn’t keel over, or start retching within a few hours, the rest of the troop would start nibbling as well. That way, the whole group could benefit from new food sources while minimizing the danger of ingesting poison.
So if you don’t say sorry, you don’t get the benefit of the myriad protections and group intelligence that comes from social living.

When’s the Last Time a Business Showed Remorse?

While we’re working so hard to find “human” qualities in animals, has anyone noticed it’s getting harder and harder to find those same qualities in human online businesses?
The dream of the online entrepreneur is that we set up fulfillment systems, write good sales letters, and never have to deal with actual people. We pay attention to our numbers and methodically seal off the profit leaks. And we automate and outsource and create an efficient machine that produces value by virtue of its design, independent of the qualities of the human beings working within it.
As my friend Lanny Goodman points out, this business management model is about 100 years old, and based on the industrial “human as cog in the machine” assumptions about how to maximize efficiency.
And while it can succeed at decreasing uncertainty and messiness, that efficiency comes at a cost: it discourages the human beings who work for us from bringing their full selves to the work.
It’s a great way to demotivate our employees and free-lancers. To squeeze all the emotional juice out of the people we rely on to delight our customers.
And the chief symptom of this pseudo-efficiency is the absence of real remorse in customer service.

“I Understand How Frustrating This Must Be For You.”

Yesterday, after selecting a laptop at Best Buy, I gave my credit card to the Geek Squad member who had been helping me shop. After running the card, he discreetly directed my attention to the screen that was saying, “Card Declined” in big bright red letters.
For anyone with any residual hang-ups about money, that’s embarrassing. In fact, while I appreciated his discretion in not announcing, “Sorry, dude, that card’s obviously stolen or maxed out or something,” I was mortified to need to be the recipient of his mercy.
(Mr Geek Squad was actually a very sweet guy. When he was telling me about a cool feature in Google Chrome where I could cover the tracks of my web surfing, he used the example of someone shopping for a gift for a family member. “Oh, you mean Porn Mode,” I replied, causing him to stammer and blush for a moment.)
So while he was ringing me up on a different card (thank heavens I’m an American ;), I called the number on the back of the offending credit card and tried to get to the bottom of the problem.
Turns out the $928 charge from a Best Buy less than 20 miles from my home was deemed suspicious. So it was declined. And this sort of thing happens all the time with my Chase Business Visa card. I buy a round trip ticket to Germany on the card, and the first purchase I make in Germany leads to account suspension on fraud charges.
So I rant a bit about how inconvenient it is to have a credit card that’s totally hit or miss. And the person at the other end – at a call center in India, I’m guessing – is saying all the right things. How they understand my frustration. How inconvenient it must be for me.
And yet – there’s not a hint of genuine feeling behind any of the words.
I don’t feel understood. I don’t feel cared for.
Please understand, I don’t blame the poor fellow on the phone. He spends all day dealing with people whose only reason for calling is that they’re pissed off about something. And many of them are even less polite and reasonable than me.
The real villain is the cost-cutting genius at Chase who figured out that paying minimum wage to people rewarded for getting me off the phone as quickly as possible without actually helping was a smart investment.
What I want – what all of us want – is to speak to someone who’s rightly horrified at the state of affairs.

Southwest and JetBlue: Getting it Right

At a recent Media Relations Summit in New York, I heard from the chief Twitterers at JetBlue and Southwest Airlines how they personally reply to angry customers venting on Twitter while stuck in grounded aircraft. Even in 140 characters, they can communicate real caring. Here’s my recollection of the spirit of the communication:
Customer on Twitter: On Southwest plane on the ground for an hour. Why do they put us on the plane if it won’t take off? Where’s the luv?
Southwest Chief Twitterer (monitoring Twitter in real time for mentions of Southwest Airlines, replying 20 seconds later): Oh, really sorry to hear that. Make sure you ask for an extra water bottle from the flight attendant.
Customer: Hey, thanks for writing. That’s so cool that you replied. That’s why I love Southwest!

What About Your Online Business?

It’s really easy to find examples of corporate stupidity and apathy and fake concern out there. But what about your own business? Do the folks on the front lines of your customer service really feel remorse when your business screws up, or are they just punching the clock?
Do your employees feel empowered to admit mistakes, their own and yours?
Do your customers feel respected and heard?

The Dirty Secret of Screw Ups

Here’s something I discovered shortly after launching my business in 2001: in terms of customer satisfaction and loyalty, it was better to make a mistake and apologize than to do it right the first time.
Luckily for me, I make lots of mistakes, so that gave me a constant opportunity to provide great “I’m really sorry” customer service.
Here’s what I discovered: up to a point, people don’t really mind when something goes wrong. What drives them batty is when they complain and nobody cares. And when you make it clear to everyone in your organization that listening to customers is the Number One job of your business, you can turn the inevitable screwups into opportunities to build loyal customers and passionate fans.
After all, we still love our dogs even when they poop on the rug. It’s that sad eyes and tucked tail look that gets us every time.

Today’s Offer

Every month in the Ring of Fire AdWords Coaching Club, I offer live group coaching on a variety of topics. One of my favorite calls is the monthly Chess Club, in which members bring their keywords and discover how to write “Checkmate” ads for those keywords. Here’s what a first-time Chess Club attendee had to say:
I wasn’t going to get on the Chess Club call this week. I’m a newbie. I don’t have a PPC campaign running and didn’t see what value I’d get from the call. Besides, I’ve read tons of PPC ads and they look easy enough to write. 

Wow, was I wrong! Not getting on the call would have been a huge mistake. In just a few minutes Howie taught me how to REALLY read and analyze PPC ads. Now I know I’ll be able to create ads that will stand out from the competition.

If you haven’t been on a call you’re missing out. Howie rocks!

Jackie Davis

Right now, the only way to get on a Chess Club call is to join the Ring of Fire.

Find out more about the Ring of Fire (starts at $20/month).

Hey, What’s the Big Idea?

Every summer, my daughter participates in a local youth theater company.

As much as it thrills me to talk about this, I’m guessing your reaction is something like this: *yawn*.

Why? Because the idea of local youth theater is commonplace. Nothing to capture your imagination. Nothing to get you thinking. Nothing to make you go “huh?”

There’s no Big Idea in that first sentence.

But wait – because I haven’t told you the whole story. And I’m not going to either. Instead, I’ll share the Big Idea of the theater company:

All-girl Shakespeare.

That’s much better, isn’t it? In just three words, you get the Big Idea. 

Now I can go on and tell you all the details. How it started 10 years ago. How no adults are involved, except as drivers. How it’s grown and flourished, and how it’s provided an amazing leadership and teamwork experience for dozens of local girls over the years, ranging in age from 7 to 18…

But if you’re interested at all, it’s because those details are filling out the picture of the Big Idea. A bunch of girls who decided to turn the original all-male genre of Shakespeare plays on its head, and slaps mustaches and beards and swords on 13-year-old girls, and no boys allowed!

Here’s another big idea I read about recently:

Klingon Opera.

Only two words, but if you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you know that the Klingons are a race more or less opposed to the humans who feature in the original series. So there’s this group of Klingon fans who have filled out their language and created an opera, titled “U”. Here’s the basic plot, ripped straight from a feature story on NPR:

U is the story of Kahless the Unforgettable, “who dices 500 warriors with a sword forged from his own hair and some help from the Lady Lukara. To celebrate their victory, they make love in the ankle-deep blood.”

Take that, Madame Butterfly!

Another word for Big Idea is “meme” – an idea so compelling, it spreads easily and effortlessly. Through word of mouth. Through emails. Through Facebook.

Susan Boyle is a great example of a Facebook meme: Underdog Shows Them. (Not us. Them.) And really, the meme of Susan Boyle is understood even quicker and deeper in sounds and images than words. That’s one reason that movies provide us with such a plethora of memes, from “Make My Day” to “Feeling Lucky?” to “Life is like a box of chocolates” to Indiana Jones shooting the guy with the whip to “Rosebud.”

Your Elevator Speech is Way Too Slow

In the old days, we had the elevator speech. We have, the story goes, 30 seconds to tell other people what we do. Well, that’s very last millennium. Three seconds is the new 30. If you can’t capture someone’s imagination in the first three seconds, with a well-constructed meme, your message is just another swatch of audio wallpaper (thanks to Ann Convery for that meme) on the vast vista of Items Competing Vainly For Our Attention.

OK, so you’re not going to write an opera or start a Shakespeare company. How can you find – or manufacture? – a meme for your business?

Here are some famous business memes (at least they’re famous to marketing junkies like me):

  • One-legged golfer
  • “Bottom of the Jar” Money-Back Guarantee
  • _____ For Dummies
  • Delivered in 30 Minutes or It’s Free

Gary Vaynerchuk created a meme with Blue Collar Wine Expert (or, “Anti-snob wine expert”).

Thousands of people sell wine. But Gary was able to cut through the clutter with an idea, never expressed in words but permeating the entirety of his business, that lots of people instantly got and instantly loved.

Deconstructing the Meme

Memes work by stopping our brains in their tracks. Some juxtapose items never before combined in our minds (Klingon Opera). Some paint a visual picture that overrides our inattention (Bottom of the Jar, One-Legged Golfer). Some just feel like, “Wow, I’m glad somebody thought of that” (or, less charitably but more common, “Darn, I wish I’d thought of that”).

Memes are simple. Obvious once you hear them. 

And potentially worth millions of dollars.

I’m guessing there’s a meme hiding in your business. Right now. A concept that just pierces the competitive cacophony of “great service, low price” and makes you more memorable and more attractive. 

You may not be able to see it. To you, it may be ordinary. That’s where OPE’s (other people’s eyes) can come in handy. 

Get a friend to interview you about your business. Have them pretend they’re an investigative reporter, and you’ve got the most interesting thing going since Thomas Crapper invented the U-bend. 

If you truly can’t find a meme, then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. What would you like your meme to be? You’re going to have to create the concept, then live into and up to it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my masterpiece: All-girl One-legged Klingon Opera For Dummies.

Products (Links You Should Click)

The Ring of Fire AdWords and Online Marketing Coaching Club

The big idea? You have a question or a problem related to online marketing or AdWords? Push the red button on your phone and say, “Howie, get in here. I need you for a minute.” That’s the Ring of Fire. A bunch of online marketing experts and newbies all contributing in forums and live coaching calls. If you ever wished AdWords For Dummies could talk back to you (in a good way ;), check out the Ring of Fire. As low as $20 a month. Plus more “little idea” benefits than I can fit into a blurb.

Look Over My Shoulder (LOMS) AdWords Success Videos

The big idea? Dozens of short (2-5 minute) video tutorials to turbocharge your AdWords expertise. Just like you’re standing behind me, watching over my shoulder as I “do my AdWords thing.” You can read about it and mostly understand, or watch and get it instantly. Watch a sample video and see a list of topics…

A Marketing Experiment

Experiment: Get 45 minutes of my phone consulting for $3.95.

Well, at the moment that’s true. I just listed a 45-minute AdWords consultation on eBay for $3.95, no reserve. That means, if you bid on it right now and nobody outbids you, I’ll be sharing my best stuff with you for 45 minutes for the price of a vegetarian egg roll at Thai Cafe (and believe me, I’ll enjoy that egg roll like nobody’s business).

You set the agenda: we can delve into your AdWords account, look at your landing pages, follow-up methodology, or overall business strategy.

One such consultation that I did about six months ago has saved the recipient about $80,000 in wasted clicks so far. Another increased CTR from 3.42 to 8.93% (a 161% improvement) within 5 weeks of the consultation. 

If you’d like to bid on the consultation, here’s a link to the eBay listing: AdWords Consultation – 45 minutes with Howie.

The auction closes on March 5, 2009 at 1:24pm EST. 


1. It’s unusual to sell consulting this way. And a little scary. What if nobody bids and I end up looking like a loser? After all, there’s no way to hide the final sale price on eBay. If it sells for $24.50, what will that mean for my fragile little ego? And for my positioning as a high-priced, high demand consultant?

2. Since it’s unusual, how can I use this “gimmick” to generate publicity for AdWords For Dummies, askHowie, and my consulting/ coaching practice? I’ve got some ideas, which you’ll see implemented over the next few days if you’re paying attention, but I’m not too proud to beg for more. How would you publicize the auction if you were me? (Of course, the more serious bidders I attract, the better the final outcome should be for me, so I have a very immediate interest in spreading the word.)

Post your ideas to comments.

3. Can you think of  something new and different you can do in your business to shake things up and make some waves? What rules can you break? A great way to ask the question, paraphrased from Doug Hall’s Jumpstart Your Business Brain: “What would really worry you if your competitors started doing this?”

That question sparked some lively brainstorming at “Camp Howie” (the name given to the 2.5 day Intensive Mastermind Workshop held in Durham last week). And produced some really powerful strategies for differentiating in crowded and competitive markets. 

See you on eBay!

The One Job Interview Question You Must Ask

If you’ve ever needed to hire an employee, you know how hard it is to figure out in advance if the person you’re considering is any good.

Everyone’s resume makes them look like Einstein.

Their references make them sound like Gandhi.

And their past experience may or may not carry over to your position.

Big companies can spend millions of dollars coming up with competency matrices and extensive psychological testing to weed out the lazy, the incompetent, and the nasty. But you can’t.

What are you to do? Just trust your gut? Hope for the best?

Enter my first business mentor, Peter Bregman of, with a fantastic article in the Harvard Business Review online.

(I know what you’re thinking – Harvard isn’t exactly Princeton – but still, it’s an impressive publication ;)

Learn from Peter’s fishing guide and the pilot who safely landed a plane in the Hudson River a couple of weeks ago:

Peter reveals the one question you must ask if you’re looking for the very best people for your organization.

Ask it of yourself as well

And – for all you online marketing junkies out there – ask this question of yourself as well. After all, just because it’s your business doesn’t mean you’re the best person to be running every part of it. Or even most of it.

You may not have a choice right now. But don’t let your ownership get in the way of building a business model that reflects your strengths and passions.


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