Wrestling The Devil

In Short
The details, or the weeds as they are often called, get a bad rap, are considered a productivity trap and something the smart leaders steer clear of. But if the devil is in the details, success requires wrestling the devil to the ground.

I’ve made my living by diving into the weeds and wrestling devils. The truth is, most devils are nothing more than a lack of communication. A lack of clarity in either the vision, the starting point or the path connecting the two. This is why diving into the details is so important.

That devil we’re wrestling with right now looks nasty from the outside; it looks complicated and unruly, kind of like a giant knot of twine. But as we dive in, we see it’s a single string that just needs to be untangled, little knot by little knot.

So we start with the most available knot. That leads us to the next, and the next, and the next, as we slowly but surely unwind the mess, a misunderstanding of order.

What we’ll always find is a person behind all those knots. Not a devil, although they may seem possessed by one, it is a person doing what they think is the right thing. That person might be us, or a vendor, or an employee, or a whole team; but someone, somewhere is making this mess or allowing the mess to be made.

Once we’ve identified the little devil causing problems (again, usually unwittingly) the wrestling begins: Obviously not physical in nature… this is mental and emotional wrestling. It is taking the time to change how the individual sees, thinks, or feels; clarifying and aligning the vision, the starting point or the path between the two.

Changing how an individual sees, thinks or feels is usually not easy. Not because change is hard- change is actually quite easy- but because we humans don’t like change. We make change hard.

Change is scary, uncomfortable (at first) and confusing. It makes us feel like beginners again, like we’re not smart or talented or valuable. This is why people don’t wrestle with the devil in the details. Devil wrestling often turns into ego-wrestling, which can get heavy and more real than most can handle.

Heavy and real, now that sounds like work worth doing to me. That sounds like change that can positively impact a person’s life, which can positively impact a whole company, which can positively impact thousands of people’s lives.

This is why I wrestle devils for a living.

A few of my favorite resources for devil wrestling:
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win
The Power of Story: Change Your Story Change Your Destiny in Business and in Life 
All things Seth Godin

P.S. I should point out that not all devil wrestling is hard. When an individual or team sets aside their egos out of a hunger to learn, evolve and do what’s best for the brand, this process of change is fun, fast and yields nearly immediate results.

P.P.S. Sometimes the opposite is true and the devil wrestling requires more time and energy than the organization can bear, there is too much collateral damage and too little change. Sometimes the knot makers need to find another place to play.


Management vs. Control

At age three, my daughter was a skilled Zen teacher. During one of my lessons, she was trying to fight back pooping after three days of willful negotiation. As we both found, we can only attempt to manage pooping, we can’t actually control it.

As humans, we learn we can manage nature and over time confuse that management with control. We believe our will is all powerful, and we ignore universal laws. We dismiss the data. We hold tightly (pun intended) to our beliefs.

I’m not so sure my daughter’s belief about her powers over poop are all that different than a climate change denier’s powers over data. Or the business owner’s willful resistance to shifting trends as they cling to beliefs no longer supported by data.

Nature is always evolving, markets shifting, expanding, contracting. So we, too, must always be evolving by listening, watching, measuring and, perhaps most importantly, being honest with ourselves. If we don’t, well, I hope there’s a bathroom nearby.

Blocking & Tackling

In Short
Sustainable growth lies in executing the fundamentals thoroughly and consistently, day after day. The fundamentals are not the flashy, exciting things to work on, but they are what make the flashy and exciting things possible and successful.

The Philly Special didn’t win the Eagles Super Bowl 52; blocking and tackling did. Blocking and tackling is what wins every Super Bowl. Only after you’ve got the fundamentals down can the breakout runs, deep passes and methodical movement down the field be possible – oh, and of course, the trick plays.

Going to market works pretty much the same way. It all starts with blocking and tackling.

We often want to do the fancy stuff, especially the go-to-market teams. They want to create emotive videos, redesign logos, come up with clever slogans. Smart, long-tail search engine optimization is boring; functional content on the website isn’t sexy; an automated email series to support a new customer doesn’t win awards; incremental improvements to core products don’t get big events. But all this is the blocking and tackling that ultimately wins market share.

Marketing today, but especially digital marketing, is about the fundamentals. This is because everything is measurable:
We can measure the average order value of a new customer.
We can measure the annual or lifetime value of a customer.
We can measure the viability of targeted audiences.
We can measure the effect of each change to the message.
We can measure the performance of specific pages on the website.
We can measure the return on each dollar spent on each marketing vehicle.

It’s this measurement that allows us to incrementally optimize. Let’s be clear here: This is not to masterfully trick the customer. This is to communicate our value and purpose so that it resonates with our customers (not the whole world, just the customers that see the world as we do and desire solutions like the ones we provide).

Too many companies currently have too much money and are not measuring and optimizing their actions. Marketing budgets are being spent in unsustainable ways. The Silicon Valley mindset of acquiring customers at any cost, which works for bleeding edge technologies and platforms that require a network effect, has made its way into every industry and has created a culture of unsustainable customer acquisition and retention.

Most of us are not building Amazon or the next unicorn brand. For 99.9% of us, it’s time to get back to the fundamentals. For us, growth is all about blocking and tackling. Three of the most effective places to get started:

  1. Measure and analyze all go-to-market efforts.
    If we don’t have time to measure, analyze, optimize, repeat, then we are doing too much or need to hire additional talent to support our efforts. Too many of us are too busy and not paying attention to what the marketplace is telling us. And so we make poor, uninformed decisions about where we spend our money and how we communicate.

a. Measure the performance of every vehicle and the sales channel as a whole.

b. Analyze data at least monthly, preferably weekly; and if you are spending a
significant percentage of your revenue on marketing or have large peaks and valleys to your business, then measure daily.

c. Make decisions based on clear trends in data. Don’t lose who you are, or how you communicate. Optimize your ability to tell your story.

2. Optimize what we own first.
The most cost effective optimization comes from our owned marketing vehicles because, once optimized, they require little ongoing spend. Where paid marketing vehicles require us to continually feed the beast.

a. Our website
Building a better mousetrap will improve the performance of every marketing vehicle. Through user testing, consumer interviews and the data available for free from Google Analytics, we can improve the site experience, increase our conversion rate and drive long-term customer loyalty.

b. Organic Search
“We’re spending too much on search engine optimization”, said nobody, ever. Google is free marketing for life. Allocate marketing spending up-front to make sure Google’s search algorithms can clearly see what you offer. Target the long-tail customers for uncrowded access to highly valuable customers. Support from SEO specialists is amazingly cheap given the return on investment. Moving from page 2 to page 1 in a search, or from the bottom of page 1 to the top can trigger significant growth.

c. Email
Starting with automated email we can deliver a series of valuable information to customers based on if they a) are just signing up to hear about our next promotion, b) made their first purchase or c) have just spent more than $1,000 with us. Once optimized to further develop the relationship with the customer, automated emails are the gifts that keep on giving. They drive repeat buying habits and long-term loyalty without another second of our attention.

As for the weekly or monthly communications, make them useful. Give users a reason to want to open the email. Educate, entertain, surprise. It’s not that we are too busy for email; we have too much choice in how we spend our time.

d. Social Media
Let’s get clear, social media is a distribution vehicle. The question isn’t, “What content should we create for social media?” The question is, “Is the content we’re creating interesting or useful enough to distribute through social media?” What is working? Who cares how many followers we have. What matters is engagement. How many likes, comments and clicks? Understand what’s resonating and at what cost.

3. Expand our audience.
Once we are measuring our activities, and have optimized the digital world we own, we can now cost effectively expand our reach by paying for traffic. We are able to do this cost effectively because we know who our customers are. We know we can connect with them in a meaningful way. We know how to form a relationship so they will come back to buy from us again and again. It’s simply a matter of finding more of our customers.

Whether we use paid search, social media advertising, banner ads or whatever new-fangled tactic arises, it really doesn’t matter. We simply follow the data in search of our customers.

a. We cast a net. Usually the first cast is not profitable. But we are seeking new places to find our customers. Using the proven communications from our owned vehicles.

b. Once we’ve found our customers, we hone the location and message until we’ve found a cost-effective way to introduce ourselves.

c. We repeat, casting a new net. Seeking the long-tail locations where we can compete and win attention. Again, not competing for everyone’s attention. Not seeking all customers. Just our customers.

This is blocking and tackling. It’s not flashy, but it works. We’ve seen it work for sub one million dollar companies and those pushing to cross the 100 or 200 million mark.


We Need More Art Students

In Short
Art students* are taught to explore multiple solutions, present their work, be critiqued and critique their peers. This experience more closely resembles today’s workplace than any liberal arts education.

We need more individuals comfortable with not getting it right. Who will toil over the solution, trying multiple paths while driven by a desire to use their creation to penetrate the hearts and minds of their audience.

We need more people who are not afraid to push on the walls of the box. Who will step just over the line seeking the best possible solution, even if it does not conform.

We need those that are determined to refine and iterate. Being comfortable with that feeling that arises when it’s not quite finished, but you put it up on the wall anyhow because it’s time to share your work with the world.

We need thick skins and open, broad minds. These are the people who are able to hear feedback, sift through the awkward communication of humans to identify what’s working and what’s not.

We need teammates that are able to provide constructive feedback. Not personal preferences but thoughtful analysis of how well the solution achieved the objective. Being able to describe how it made them think or feel and what triggered those thoughts or emotions.

We need people working diligently at mastering their craft. Honing in on their unique talents, cultivating a distinct perspective on the world and the problem at hand, and then working diligently to become better.

We need individuals who understand their career is a string of projects that will wind and weave through different periods of life, with each phase clearly imprinted in their work. People who can trust there is a through-line that will reveal itself over time but only comes from putting one foot in front of the other each day.

We need a collective of artists, each proud enough of their work to sign their name at the bottom, putting a little bit of themselves into everything they do and sending it off into the world.

In my humble opinion, it is artists that create powerful brands. We need more artists.


*Full disclosure, I was an art student. I became a photographer. I use what I learned in school and in the field, every day, even though I haven’t made a living from clicking a shutter in over a decade.


In The Present

“Learn from the past. Live in the present. Plan for the future.”
– Anonymous Special Operations Sniper

What worked last year, or at our last job, may not work here.

Here, today, in this moment, we have a unique set of challenges and opportunities. We are working with a different team. We have a different starting point and different objectives. We have different tools at our disposal. We might even have a different title or role to play.

The human brain looks for patterns, using the past to predict the future. It’s how we survived for thousands of years finding food, water, shelter, warmth when it was cold and cool air when it was hot. But today we live and work in a rapidly changing world.

Taking a product to market looks completely different today than it did just a few years ago. Whole markets now transform in less than a decade. More than ever we now need to approach the present as a unique instance. We can’t simply repeat past actions.

Yes, we must learn from the past. Yes, we must apply universal principles. Yes, we must plan for the future to set a clear course of action. However, more important than looking back or looking forward is being present.

How often do we simply sit still, with no screen, just being in the present moment? How often do we take time to step back and just observe what’s going on in our lives, in our office, in our market, in our own head?

Learning from the past and planning for the future are only useful if that knowledge and vision is put into action. We can only act in the present moment. So let’s be present, right here, right now, to take right action.


Groundswell Change

We find resistance to change is contagious. Fortunately, we find change is also contagious.

Few welcome change, because change is hard and scary. For organizations, change is especially scary when it’s instigated from the outside. It is viewed as a threat to the tribe, with the resistance hardwired into their collective psyche; they are not us, therefore, they do not understand us or know what is good for us.

Change from the top down is also met with resistance if there is not a deep level of trust. Because top down change is being pushed on the organization, it requires buy-in from the start, skillful change-management along the way and sustained effort to avoid regression before new pathways are created and grooves worn into place. Few leadership teams are experienced in change or have the bandwidth to sustain such an effort.

Groundswell change on the other hand, starts with a few individuals peppered throughout the organization, slowly moving through teams, building momentum as it travels–occurring gradually and then suddenly.

Groundswell change is triggered by leaders in the organization (not to be confused with leadership which is determined by titles). Leaders are the individuals that people go to when there is a problem because they have proven to navigate the organization to resolve issues, guide colleagues towards solutions or be a sympathetic ear.

These leaders exist in every organization, at every level, and influence across teams. They are lighthouses in the fog of war and cheerleaders through the daily grind. These leaders, too, will start off resistant to change as they protect their tribe and the brand as a whole. However, as trusted leaders, they are also keenly aware of problems in the organization and their systemic nature.

The first step in building trust in leaders is to listen. The team members need to know the change-maker understands the problem–– not just the symptoms, but the problems at the root of the symptoms.

Leaders then need a vision for a better future. How are these issues going to be resolved and how will the organization look, feel and act? They need a clear and honest picture of the future to buy into. They are not looking for rainbows and unicorns. Leaders want to understand the reality of the path forward, the good, the bad and the ugly.

At this point, no trust has been built -only the soil prepared for trust to grow. Trust comes from delivering. Leaders need to see issues resolved. They need to experience improvement–– for themselves and their colleagues. Even better is if they themselves are empowered to resolve the issues.

That’s when the groundswell begins. That’s when people turn their heads to see what’s happening over there. Word spreads about lives improving. The results start to show in ways others can see, experience, or hear about. Actual change, however small, stirs a desire to join.

As momentum builds, larger more difficult challenges can be taken on as the will to power through the dip and the energy to sustain the effort start teeming through every level of the organization.

Change is hard and scary. Fortunately, the feeling of empowerment that comes from shaping the destiny of a brand, organization or our life as a whole is one of the most rewarding human experiences.


Our Strategy Is Worthless

Our brand strategy, our business strategy, our go-to-market strategy, our social media strategy, it’s all worthless. All that time contemplating, debating and refining, it’s all worthless. Unless… the organization can execute tactically.

The success of the brand, will be determined by the organizations ability to embody its unique principles and values in all that it does; and to continue to do so as the business scales.

The success of the business will be determined by the organizations ability to understand and execute the business plan; while dealing with market challenges outside of its control and the growing pains faced as the businesses scale.

The success of the marketing will be determined by the organizations ability to align its efforts across multiple teams, internal and external, to put the energy of the entire organization behind the tip of the messaging and experiential spear.

At the end of the day, the success of a business comes down to the success of people. The ability of individuals to execute, and do so as a collective in lock step with their peers.

We spend little time developing talent. We financially penalize those that stick around and reward the new person with that prestigious college and big brand on their resume. We spend little time building leaders and furthering education. Once a year we align the troops on a plan, then send them off to a year-long battle that never unfolds as designed.

Strategy is necessary. Planning is critical. Execution, by individual people, in the trenches, trying to balance work and life and emotions and desires, that is what determines if we live, die or thrive as an organization.

What are we going to do about that? How can we best ensure success? Maybe we should start by dedicating a bit more of our time to our people, instead of our spreadsheets.

The Wisdom of Voltron

Preface: This is not a geeky sci-fi deep-dive.

In the mid-80’s the Japanimation inspired sci-fi cartoon Voltron burst onto our five-channel TV scene (that’s including PBS) to become the number one children’s show. Looking back, the story is pretty ridiculous, five astronauts each piloting a cat-like spacecraft that together form into a mega-sized futuristic knight robot to fight alien robot invaders, using a sword in one hand and a cat mouth as it’s other hand.

Yet me and my brothers were glued to the TV, and not just because of our channel deficiency. Voltron made a comeback on Netflix in 2015 and is currently in its third new season, competing in today’s crowded content field. Voltron is unique in its storyline, standing apart even today.

Most superhero’s act alone. At times, they come together to fight evil, but they are all individuals. Many cartoons and children’s programming will involve teamwork; individuals taking on challenges with help from another. Only Voltron relied on all five characters, each unique in their strengths and weaknesses, coming together to form one powerful unit.

Voltron is the model for organizations today. As our culture moves towards individual sports, the individual as the brand, the individual dominating as the storyline; it’s the team of individuals working as one entity that has always been the key to success, and is only made more critical in today’s complex and rapidly changing business landscape. The challenge for many businesses is that this mindset runs counter to the American culture, creating a vacuum of true leaders and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” like thinking.

As our sense of community has crumbled, as our culture idolizes the individual, our work environment is now the dominant vehicle for cultivating leadership and the ability to work as one. It’s up to organizations to instill this wisdom and experience in individuals. If an organization isn’t trying to build an army of Voltrons, it’s success will be short lived.

“The trouble is…”

“The trouble is, you think you have time.”
― Jack Kornfield, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book

This isn’t a call for acting with reckless abandon. This is a call for intentional prioritization; for doing what matters most given the limited time we have on this earth and the fragility of our bodies. For some, this means quitting a job, dropping everything and traveling the world, touring the country in a van or living off the grid. I often admire, through Instagram’s small window, those on that path as they heed Jack’s words. But that is not our path right now.

For those of us on the path of service, the call is to do work that matters most, to us and to the world. No matter where we are in our career, this is a call to take on our daily tasks like today may be our last. If we had one day left, what work would matter most? What could we leave behind for our employees, colleagues or clients so that they can continue to do work that matters most?

This is a call to take on our work from a place of purpose –with focus, discipline and passion– while enjoying the ride with all its ups downs and spinning around– because it may be our last. This is a call to take the time to admire this awe-inspiring world and our ability to create something from nothing, like gods, and watch that creation take flight. Or watch that creation crash and burn, learning valuable life lessons that help to illuminate foundational principles on how this mind-blowing universe works. And while today may be our last, this is a call to always take time to sharpen the saw so the next day may be as purposeful, productive and rewarding if we are lucky enough to have the opportunity again.

Tactically Speaking
At the tactical level this is creating the habits and rituals that structure our days, weeks, months and years. This can be applied personally to design our lifestyle or, organizationally, to design our company culture. The wisest that have ever lived speak of our lives like water: They can take many different shapes and paths. The vessel we put them in is what defines the form and behavior.

So, we must design the structure that best serves us, the individual or collective-organizational us. What is our morning ritual? What gets done first when we sit down to work? How are Mondays different from Wednesdays, or are they the same? Do we have daily scrums or weekly touch-base meetings or both? What do we do at the end of months, or on birthdays, or in the summer?

P.S. This is a message to myself, I’m just sharing it with you.


Are we building a boat or a house?

Boats move and turn- big ones slowly, small ones quickly; but they all turn. If we have a direction in mind, a crew that can communicate and a rudder to steer, we can control its course and speed. The speed and agility of the boat is dependent on the boat design and the capabilities of the crew.

IBM is a boat. Berkshire Hathaway is a boat. Amazon is an Armada.

Houses are affixed to the ground. The surrounding land is surveyed to select the right site. Then the house is designed and built to fit that site, to be sturdy and never move. Change comes from painting the outside, redoing the interior design, or putting on an addition. The aesthetics, experience and quality of construction come from the team that designed and built the house and is maintained by the homeowner or occupant.

Sears is a house. Toys R’ Us is a house. So is Red Bull, Prada and Whole Foods.

Are we building a house or a boat? Are we developing a specific solution to a specific problem (a house), or are we pursuing a purpose (a boat) no matter where it takes us?


It’s A Scavenger Hunt

The breadcrumbs are everywhere.
It’s a game we’re all playing.
There is no end to the game.
The breadcrumbs just lead us to “Where next?”
If we pay attention, whether we keep moving or stand still, there will be another breadcrumb.
There’s always another breadcrumb.
The better we get at the game, the more obvious these breadcrumbs become.

Breadcrumbs can be a carrot or a stick.
That high ROI long-tail keyword – a carrot.
Or that pain in my shoulder and crunching sound in my knee – sticks.
If we ignore the carrots, they often bounce in front of our face to catch our eye repeatedly.
Eventually carrots move on or are eaten by someone else.
If we ignore the sticks, they swing harder, inflicting more pain (physical, mental, financial, etc.)
Sticks only stop when we do something about them or when the game is over.

To win the game, we first need to be looking for those breadcrumbs.
We need to be curious, open-minded and broadminded.
We also need to decipher breadcrumbs from trash.
The only way to know for sure which is which, is to test and measure.
Is it a great tasting carrot?
Is there less pain?

Little by little, breadcrumb by breadcrumb, we find our way.


Agency Rules

We thought we’d share some rules for hiring and working with agencies (us included) that we’ve developed over years from seeing some truly dysfunctional agency relationships.

  1. Task few with thinking and many with doing.
  2. Manage agencies directly, never letting an agency get between you and an agency.
  3. Take the time to get clear; the clearer the input, the more efficient and effective the output.
  4. Make measurable performance metrics and review those metrics regularly. (See rule 23)
  5. If you are going to choose not to listen to them, then don’t bother hiring them.
  6. When it no longer works, move on. Agencies are not marriage material.
  7. Be of high value to the agency’s image or bottom line, or be fun and interesting to work with.
  8. Make sure you are getting the nerds, geeks and weirdos; the “cool kids” are just for show.
  9. Don’t pay double or triple or quadruple for entry-level talent, hire your own 23-year-old and have the agency tell them what to do.
  10. Get your own references, not the ones they send you.
  11. A worthy agency will push you to the edge of your comfort zone and show you the results of their recommendations, the good, bad and ugly.
  12. If they treat their team like commodity labor, you will not get great work. You will get done work.
  13. If it’s a lifestyle agency, designed for employment while playing in the mountains or ocean, you will never be their priority.
  14. Provide them with challenges they need to solve, not solutions to execute.
  15. Ask lots of questions in order to learn to fish, if not tactically then strategically.
  16. They need to understand your business model (how you make and spend money) and how you operate.
  17. You need to understand their business model (how they make and spend money) and how they operate.
  18. The bigger, nicer and more prestigious their office, the less work you receive for every dollar you spend.
  19. Don’t hire an agency when a good freelancer can do the work just as good, cheaper, and with better customer service (because you mean more to their reputation and bottom line).
  20. Communicate as needed, not just weekly and at a set time.
  21. Play devil’s advocate, -red team blue team- to understand solutions from all sides.
  22. If they are doing work you and your team don’t understand, you need to get educated or get a second opinion to gain that understanding.
  23. Good work is not just pretty work; it’s effective work. (see rule 4, but be careful what you measure)