The Lesser Kudu and Willful Ignorance

I take my daughter to the zoo.  I take my daughter to the zoo way too much.  As all my friends know, I am a shameless Fort Worth booster. Among my favorite facts about Fort Worth is that our zoo is the oldest in Texas (1909), one of the best in the country and my friend Michael Bennett designed the Museum of Living Art (MOLA) which is the most kick-ass-amazing-crocs-at-eye-level thing ever made by humans.

And I wasn’t even born here.  I just know cool when I see it.

Lesser Kudu
I. Am. Not. A. Deer.

But when I go to the zoo, I always feel bad for the lesser kudu.  The lesser kudu is majestic and graceful.  She is delicate and formidable at the same time.  What makes her lesser?  After all, she is not a mini greater kudu.  In fact, she is probably an earlier version of the greater kudu – she came first. So maybe she ought to be called the original kudu.

By the way, Bonnie and I have the same problem with the lesser bird-of-paradise.  Couldn’t they just name it something else?  Like maybe …  “A Bird So Beautiful Your Continent Doesn’t Deserve Native Versions So You Can Only See Them At The Zoo.”  Or maybe … “Bring You to Gentle Tears Bird.”    Would you like to be known as the lesser brother?  Or the lesser musician?  Who comes up with these names?

As bad as I feel for the lesser kudu and the lesser bird-of-paradise because of their names, my melancholy does not compare to the pessimism I feel when parents say to their kids, “Look at the pretty deer!”  Or, “Say hello to the pretty parrot, honey!”

Come on.  The signs are right in front of the enclosures.  They share all kinds of interesting information like … wait for it … the actual name of the animal.  The lesser kudu is not even a deer … she’s an antelope (and, yes, I realize I’m referring to all kudus as “she” … because I like it … so back off).  And if you think a lesser bird-of-paradise looks anything like a parrot you need to read a book … or anything … maybe a newspaper … or even a cereal box.

I get fired up about animal names.  I bet that my daughter can accurately identify more non-American animals than 99% of our country’s population.  Seriously.  And she’s not even three years old.

Why would people spend all that time exploring exotic animals and not bother to learn what they are called or where they come from?  Why would they choose to remain willfully ignorant when the truth is right in front of them?  And why would they pass that ignorance on to their children?

I was thinking about that today at the zoo; then I realized people do it all the time in all kinds of different ways.  The Internet puts everything at our fingertips, yet we still choose ignorance.  Do you know what kind of roof you have?  Do you know the names of the plants in your yard?  Do you know the ingredients in your microwave dinner?  Do you know what’s in the employment agreement you signed at work?  Do you know how to fix a flat?  Do you know whether your hot water heater is gas or electric?  Do you know how to program your universal remote?  Do you know who your senator is?  Do you know the name of your neighbor?

Why is it okay to not know … and why is it okay to not care?

I’ll tell you why.  Because you don’t need to know any of these things to survive.  The best thing that knowing about the lesser kudu can get you is a chuckle at a cocktail party or perhaps a wedge in trivial pursuit.

But people should examine whether they want to merely survive or thrive.  Many studies have proven that the key to happiness is friends.  It’s hard to have friends if no one likes you or if people think you’re dumb or boring.  People like interesting people who have interesting life experiences and know interesting things that are not about hunting, gathering or shelter.

You’ve already taken the first step of exploration by going to the zoo in the first place.  Why don’t you walk around in slow motion and linger over the information plaques and imagine what life may be like where the lesser kudu is from.

And yes.  This is all a metaphor.

Contracts and a Satisfied Mind

Music to read by: Johnny Cash, Satisfied Mind

Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last

To understand where I’m coming from on this next point, you have to know that I live in Fort Worth, Texas. In Fort Worth, we still do million-dollar deals on a handshake. Because that’s the way business works when people trust each other. We still know our bankers by name and we’re even friends with our accountants and lawyers. Like, real friends. We drink beer together and don’t talk about business all that much (see you at the Ginger Man, Derick).

Good Day to You Sir!
Good Day to You Sir!

Contracts are just a way to memorialize the spirit of an agreement, work out the finer points and remember what you agreed to several years down the road (aren’t you surprised by the huge things we agree to that we eventually forget?).

It’s my personal opinion that if you find yourself reviewing a contract or legal agreement, something has gone wrong with the relationship, not the deal.

So when someone tells me (verbally) we have a deal, that’s good enough for me.  I’ll let the contract come later, but I won’t let it keep me from getting started.  Like, for example, when a real estate agent tells me that the seller has accepted my offer, I start scheduling the inspection and appraisal.  The contract may not be in my hand, but where I’m from, when someone tells me the deal is done, it’s done.  So why not get started?

And then, when that same real estate agent says that another offer has come in (after my offer has already been accepted verbally) I get more than a little pissed off.  Because we had a deal.  And now we don’t.  Is that illegal? No. Is it technically acceptable? Yes – no real estate deal is binding without a signature. Is it ethical? Probably not. Is it right?

No. It’s not right.

So for all you people out there that hide behind contracts and signatures and technicalities and procedures, you should know something; the older you get, the more you realize that a satisfied mind is more important than a few extra bucks. Nice guys don’t finish last. They just get out of the game sooner because they don’t have to hustle anymore. That’s what a solid reputation does for you. It keeps working long after you’ve stopped.

Good luck.

Fan Mail

My blog is a huge success.
My blog is a huge success.

A Big Thank You!

My social media director tells me that comments are a great measure of blogging success.  So I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge all the amazing comments I’ve received during the last several days.  I’ve received so many, it’s impossible to respond to them all!  So I chose only the most amazing.

From Back Pain Exercises:

“Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures on this blog loading?  I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.  Any responses would be greatly appreciated.”

Dear M. Exercises:

Thank you so much for the comment.  I checked with my other readers and no one is having problems with the pictures.  We all use the same computer, and I haven’t had any issues either.  Thanks for your concern, but all systems are go.  You might want to check the performance of your machine.

From что такое литерные рейсы:

“I think the admin of this website is in fact working hard in favor of his site, since here every data is quality based material.”

Dear M. рейсы:

Thank you for the comment.  Seems like the blog is working fine for you.  I’ll let M. Exercises know.  And thank you for the compliment.

From Acne:

“I totally agree with you.  Same here, received, filled out, and mailed back, today we get another as a reminder?  A terrible waste of money as far as I am concerned.  Of course we all know who pays for the waste, right?”

Dear M. Acne:

Thank you so much for the comment.  I really feel your frustration – it’s palpable.  Who pays for the waste indeed.  Who pays.  Thanks for your support.

From Personal Money Blog:

“This type of excellent publish, awesome guidelines, may thanks for distribution.”

Dear M. Blog:

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to receive comments like this.  I’ll keep up the good work if you keep reading!  How about that?  No really – thank you.

Critical Mass and Obsession

I’m going to use some very round numbers for this.  If you want exact numbers, check out the Statistics of U.S. Businesses (SUSB) by the United States Census Bureau.

Van Gogh is the model of obsession.
Van Gogh is the model of obsession.

There are about 27 million companies in the United States.  About 80% of those companies are classified as “ non-employer firms” – in other words, they have no payroll.  In fact, only  5.7 million companies reported a payroll in 2010 (the latest available numbers).  The analysis here is based only on “employer firms.”  Let’s take a look at how they stack up by employee size:

  • 62% employ 4 people or fewer
  • 17% employ between 5 and 9 people
  • 11% employ between 10 and 19 people
  • 8% employ between 20 and 99 people
  • 2% employ 100 people or more

So here are a couple of headlines from the data:

  • Only about 38% of all U.S. companies are larger than 4 people
  • Only about 2% of all companies in the country are larger than 99 people

And keep in mind, that’s only counting companies that already have some payroll.  The vast majority of companies have no payroll at all.  Of course many of these companies are designed to never have a payroll, but you can bet that millions within the 20 million or so non-employer firms are trying to start something up; they just haven’t reached the first stage of critical mass.

Based on these numbers (and my own experience), it’s not too much of a stretch to say that there are several stages of critical mass at play in American business.  Here are the stages as I see them:

  • Stage 1 – The first employee.  Only 20% of all companies in the United States have at least one person on payroll (when including non-employer firms).
  • Stage 2 – The fifth employee.  Only 38% of all employer firms have at least 5 employees.
  • Stage 3 –  The hundredth employee.  Only 2% of all employer firms have 100 employees or more.

A company with 100 people is still quite small.  We’re talking about 10 – 15 managers and about 7,500 square feet of space.  Chances are, in such a small company, the founders or executives are still very active in the day-to-day operation of the company and are accessible to many (if not most) of the employees.  The cultural DNA can probably also be tracked back to the founders or executive team.

So if your company aspires to grow beyond 99 employees, you should realize that: (a) only about 2% of all employer firms in the United States are that large; (b) you have much less than a 2% probability of achieving your goal when you add in non-employer firms to the analysis; and (c) the people you have at the top right now are the ones wiring your culture for success or failure.  The imprint left by the founder or executive who sets the cultural tone for your small business will linger for years (even after he is gone).

I have asked hundreds of companies (and thousands of employees) a simple question over the last decade or so: “Who set the tone for your company’s culture?”  Almost without fail, there is strong internal consensus that the culture was created by a single person (usually the founder) or by the relationship between two people (co-founders or high-level executives).

And I can also state with confidence that success comes down to how the culture was wired by these people.  Companies that grow beyond 99 employees have a healthy obsession.  Companies that do not grow that large may also have an obsession, but the dark side of that obsession has taken over.  Or they have no obsession at all.

So here’s the point: Very few companies reach stage 3 of critical mass – the hundredth employee.  Only obsessed companies ever get there.  Obsession is passed from the top down.  If you want to grow to 100 employees or more, you have to celebrate your obsession but you must also set boundaries for it.

More on obsession later.

You Should Do This

This week, I was honored to attend a 2-day, all-company meeting for one of my clients.  On both days of the meeting, they did something really cool – they videoconferenced multiple customers in and asked employees to pepper them with questions.  Any questions they wanted.

Another really bad photo of Bret Starr
Careful what you allow on the Internet!

Development folks asked them how to improve the product.  Marketing and sales folks asked them about the competition.  Support folks asked them about their experience.

It was all very honest – and very cool.  The customer interviews set the tone for the entire meeting and generated many ideas for continuous improvement over the next two days.

You should do this, too.

They also prepared a 10-minute slide show of pictures they found of me on the Internet.  You shouldn’t do that.  Only because some of the pictures look like this one.


Doomsday Prepping for Business

Wouldn’t You Like to be a Prepper Too?

Preppers are intriguing.  They don’t just make for good television – they also provide grist for the philosophical mill.

Solar Flare gonna fuck you up.
Solar Flare gonna fuck you up.

For the uninitiated (some would call them zombies, a label sometimes applied to people who are not prepared), a prepper is someone in the process of fortifying for serious (even surreal) disasters.  Preparations may include:



  • Planning an evacuation route
  • Storing fresh water
  • Building a deep-earth bunker with a nuclear, biological and chemical air filter

And most preppers have guns.  Lots and lots of guns.

What are they preparing for?  Different preppers prepare for different scenarios.  Some preppers are concerned about natural disasters and intensifying storm systems.  They frequently point to the days and weeks after Katrina as a blueprint for what to expect after a big storm or other natural event.  While some others are concerned “the government” is actually controlling the weather with satellites and is bent on destroying the world.  So, there ya go.  Those crazy guys are the true “doomsday preppers” that get all the attention.

I spend more time than I should exploring the underlying logical quandaries of prepping.  In a nutshell, is it better to be a prepper or a zombie?  When the SHTF (as preppers are fond of saying) is it better to be on offense or defense?  Would you rather live in isolation (perhaps with your family) hiding in a bunker and defending a stockpile of plastic food, powdered water and various other sundries? Or would you rather roam the countryside with the zombie majority looking for people defending stockpiles?  Or perhaps, mercifully, would you rather go down with the ship and avoid the whole post-apocalyptic cliche to begin with?

After careful study (and by that I mean lots of alcohol and Internet research) I have come to the conclusion that preparing for 72 hours of chaos after a disaster is a reasonable thing to do.  Anything beyond that isn’t really for me.  Living underground for months with a deck of cards, a copy of Dune and a room full of freeze-dried food sounds like the end of the world anyway; I would rather see the fireworks outside – it’s a once-in-a-species opportunity!

Many preppers believe that the first 72 hours after a major catastrophe are the most critical and chaotic.  Supply chains providing food and water may be broken, law and order may be temporarily brushed aside by looting and general ill-tempered loitering, and people may be left to fend for themselves as emergency response teams take time to mobilize.  In that situation, I can see the wisdom in Ron Burgundy’s advice to Brick Tamland after Brick kills a guy with a trident: “Brick, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You should find yourself a safe house or a relative close by. Lay low for a while, because you’re probably wanted for murder.”

Which brings me to my point.  Finally.

Is your business prepared for a disaster?  Even a minor one?  Frequently, when the SHTF, people are asked to stay put where they are.  Do you have everything you need to throw a surprise slumber party for one hundred of your closest friends?  Do your employees know where to take shelter in a storm?  Do you have an orderly evacuation procedure in case of a fire?  How about first aid kits from this decade, fire extinguishers that weren’t emptied at the last company party and flashlights (with batteries)?

I won’t prescribe a position or a plan.  I’ll simply ask you the same questions I asked myself:

  1. Do you believe that people should be prepared for a disaster?
  2. If so, should companies help prepare the workplace, or is preparation solely an individual responsibility?
  3. If you believe companies should prepare the workplace, which scenario should they prepare for?
  • Scenario 1: A one-time event such as a fire or tornado?
  • Scenario 2: A 72-hour period after a catastrophe in case employees are stuck at the office?
  • Scenario 3: A doomsday event?

I say if the end of the world comes, I don’t want to be stuck at the office for the rest of my life.  So I go with scenario 2.

The Immutable Self: Business Style and Marketing Strategy (Part 2)

Frustrated Marketers

From my last post: “Companies must either execute a market share strategy designed to capture a position of leadership in their market segment, or a profit strategy designed to provide maximum return on investment to shareholders.  A company simply cannot do both and expect to succeed at either.”  

I want to make it very clear that I do not judge these decisions.  I’ve worked with both large and small companies with profit and market share strategies.  I don’t care which growth strategy you have.  I just want you to own it.   Then I want you to align your marketing strategy with your growth strategy so everyone knows how to do their job.

Most companies run profit-oriented marketing strategies.
Most companies run profit-oriented marketing strategies.

You can’t fake a growth strategy.  On some level of consciousness  your company has decided to pursue consistent profit or to risk profit for a larger return down the road by capturing as much market share as possible.  The truth is that most technology companies are profit-oriented; they want to grow, but they will not or cannot sacrifice profitability to fund growth.  A successful market share strategy on the other hand most often requires year after year of operating losses and tons of investment.  That means OPM (other people’s money) and significant additional downstream investment, usually from venture capitalists.  The vast majority of technology companies are not funded from institutional sources like venture capital and therefore have no business pursuing a market share strategy.

Your growth strategy is part of your company’s true self and has a tremendous impact on marketing strategy, all the way down to the promotion level.  Marketing strategies for profit-oriented companies are very different than those for companies wired to capture market share.  For example, profit-oriented companies rely heavily (and sometimes almost exclusively) on demand generation.  Market share companies must invest heavily in brand recognition.  Marketing must play a significant role in both types of companies, but the role is very different.

Most technology marketers I meet are extremely frustrated.  They lament their lack of resources.  They dream of big budgets, sexy ad campaigns and photo shoots on foreign beaches.  They decry their company and executive team for lack of vision and ignorance of marketing nuance.

Fact is, most marketers want to run market share strategies and most companies are profit oriented.  That’s a big deal.  It means that most marketers are not aligned with the growth strategy causing a lot of friction between the marketing team and the executive team.  That’s why it’s so important for executives to communicate their growth strategy to marketing, and for marketing to understand that they must adapt to the growth strategy.

And there is no better time to cover this than in the interview!  Did you know that most marketers take jobs with no insight into the growth strategy or marketing budget?  If you’re not talking about these things in the interview, you’re headed for a heartache.


The Immutable Self: Business Style and Marketing Strategy

From the Book

The following is content from my forthcoming book, The Honeycomb: An Unconventional Model for B2B Marketing.

Music to Read By: The Flaming Lips, Feeling Yourself Disintegrate

There is this great line from a movie called Dead Again.  Anyone remember that movie?  Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams) says, “Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.”

Robin Williams as Cozy Carlisle

Cozy’s point is that we often don’t know who we truly are. In the absence of self awareness, we adopt attitudes, behaviors and beliefs based on who we think we ought to be rather than who we truly are.  The styles we adopt are almost entirely formed by exposure to outside influences.  If we’re lucky, these influences are aligned with our true nature.  If we’re not so lucky, we’re looking at a mid-life crisis.  The trick is to find out who we truly are, live with it and love it.  If you’re a smoker, be a smoker.  If you’re not, then you’re not.  Get it?

When it comes to marketing (because this is a book about marketing) it’s important to understand that every business has an immutable self.  Early in their development, companies spend a lot of time trying to find themselves. They try on different business strategies, messages, brands and campaigns like so many sweaters, hoping to land on the one that just feels right.  This is a natural process.  It doesn’t mean that the self has not developed; it simply means that the self has not been discovered and nurtured to its full potential.  But when the true, immutable self is discovered and nurtured, everyone feels it.  Not only is all the potential in a company unlocked, but people simply feel better about where they are and what they’re doing.  Everything is easier and progress happens with less friction.  People might even feel a little nervous – a little exhilarated.  They might feel like they’re having fun.

“If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.”

I own a marketing agency.  Companies hire our firm to help build brands and drive leads.  But through the years I have learned that we can’t do our job very well if the client hasn’t found themselves.  In cases where the client has an identity crisis, we have a choice: we can take their money anyway and hope for the best, or we can help them discover their immutable self so that we can get on with marketing strategies that will actually work.  We always choose the latter; I would argue that’s the single reason we tripled in revenue during the recession as most other agencies were whacking people left and right.

I’ll talk a lot about the immutable self and the concept of obsession later in the book.  But for right now, I want to focus on one aspect of the true and singular self – business strategy.

Business strategy can take many forms and operate at many levels, but I only care about the most elemental level when it comes to marketing.  How do you keep score?  In my oversimplified view of business (because I am a simple man from Alice, Texas) companies can only be successful if they pursue a singular strategy and measure it with a single score.

Companies must either execute a market share strategy designed to capture a position of leadership in their market segment, or a profit strategy designed to provide maximum return on investment to shareholders.  A company simply cannot do both and expect to succeed at either.   

“The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that.”

More on that in my next post.

Learning to Shut Up

And Shutting Up to Learn

Music to Read By: The Avett Brothers, Tear Down the House

We spend most of our lives proving ourselves to others.  Unfortunately, the most loquacious and confident of us are the most successful.

Good Listening is About Being an Alien.
I grabbed this funny “infographic” from The Clutter-Free Classroom.

Being smart and talking a lot don’t always go hand-in-hand.  But neither do being dumb and talking a lot.  It’s just not that simple.  But it feels true to me that people who talk a lot receive more consideration.

Life is an avalanche.  It starts off slow and small but gathers speed and intensity with each moment . We rarely have the opportunity to judge the outcomes of things people say (or fact-check their claims or analyze their bedrock logic).  As a result, we end up with a lot of people in charge who are full of shit, and a lot of people who are not.  But most of us in charge do talk a lot (we have that in common).

One of the hardest transitions of my career has been moving from a talker to a listener (and frankly, the only progress I’ve made is to realize I need to talk less and listen more).  I arrived where I am today (wherever that is) by talking a good game and convincing people I had the right plan (even when I wasn’t so sure myself).  Fortunately, I have been able to deliver most of the time.  And, furthermore, I believe there is an element of persuasion in effective leadership that often requires the suspension of self-doubt.  I only had a sliver of a chance growing up the way I did, and I mostly maximized it with my mouth.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always listened – but it has always been with intent.  I listened with the intent to solve a problem, to gain insight into a situation or a person, or to gather data for future logical arguments.  But for me, listening was always a strategy directed towards an outcome.  And always a pause along the way to me talking more.  I never just listened to listen … to see what happens and where it takes me.

But now I’m starting to understand the wisdom in letting go.  You see, I have recently realized that to truly listen you really have to let go of intent.  You have to let go of your philosophical position, your preconceived notion of the best solution and your inherent biases that are created when you quickly sum people up and categorizing them in false, one-dimensional archetypes (the stubborn one, the spineless one, the smart one, the dumb one).

It’s a unique form of solipsism to imagine that other people exist only  to sharpen one’s own understanding of things.  We are all planets to ourselves, passing in and out of other’s gravitational fields.  I’m trying to shut my mouth more so that maybe I can be pulled in someone else’s direction for once instead of always trying to pull people in mine.

The best outcome is that I’m learning more now than I have in a very long time.  And the best surprise is that I’m learning a lot of things about myself that until now have remained undiscovered.  I’m seeing things differently.  And finally, I’ve found that other people around me are flourishing because they have the opportunity to take the podium without my loquacious interference.

Shutting up is hard for me, but I’m learning.

When a Man Falls Through the Roof

Music to Read By: A. A. Bondy – World without End

Is Anyone There to Pick Him Up?

The Starr Conspiracy recently won our eighth best places to work award.  At the banquet in Austin, I was reminded of my first job out of college.  It was also in Austin.

I was a hot-tar roofer.  In the doldrums of summer, I climbed impossibly-long ladders to mop boiling tar on the roofs of commercial buildings.  Within a month, I was running the crew (I did have a college degree in Literature after all).  One morning a worker showed up hungover.  He spoke a little English and I spoke a little Spanish  so we figured out together that what he really needed was a single beer (el pelo del perro).  I climbed down from the deck, drove to the Maverick Market and returned with a tall boy, a Gatorade and bottle of water.  He chugged all three in that order.  We were now friends.

On this particular job, we were roofing a large metal building.  On this particular day, I was cutting skylights into the roof (big ones).  My new friend appeared at the top of the latter smiling.  He wobbled a little as he walked towards a stack of felt rolls.  He stopped, threw a roll of felt over each shoulder and began to sing as he swaggered towards the work area.  In three or four steps he was standing on my open skylight like Wile E. Coyote.  Fell right through with a puff of smoke.

When you cut metal with a saw, it leaves a jagged edge.  My friend tried to grab the edge of the square hole on his way down which lacerated several of his fingers.  He fell three stories.  I looked through the hole and saw a man lying unconscious.  There was a little bit of blood.  His knees were tucked to his chest like a sleeping baby.

The boss just happened to be driving up.  Of course he didn’t call an ambulance or anything like that.  He just loaded the guy in the back of his truck and drove him to the hospital.  Probably just dropped him at the ER.  The next day, my friend’s teenage son showed up to work his father’s shift.  It was a school day.

I’d had enough of that shit.

Hard core capitalists and profiteers can’t connect with the benefits we offer our employees at The Starr Conspiracy.  Admittedly, our unlimited PTO policy is an easy target for cynicism.  But one thing that will never change about The Starr Conspiracy is our dedication to providing quality medical coverage to our folks and their families.   Because it’s the right thing to do.  You shouldn’t have to see a guy fall through the roof and send his son to work in his place to come to that conclusion.

The Benefit of Benefits
“Strap them to chairs with feeding tubes!”

The government will do what the government will do.  For us, the cost of quality benefits is priced into our business model.  Where do they find these small business owners who complain on television that the government is going to put them out of business if they are forced to take care of their employees?  If you can’t run a profitable business and take care of your employees at the same time, maybe you’re not cut out to run a business.

It all comes down to what kind of society you want to create and live in.  Do you want to live in a country where people are exploited for the maximum benefit of shareholders?  Or do you want to live in a country where being a business owner is a privileged responsibility and an opportunity to make people’s lives better?  I’ve met with hundreds of business owners and I can tell you that there are no noble motives in going cheap on benefits.  I once heard a business owner say, “Strap ‘em to a chair with feeding tubes.  What the fuck do I care?”

Owning a business is like being the ruler of your own little country.  What kind of ruler will you be?  What kind of country will you have?  And how will it all end up?  Look – the system is screwed up, I get that.  But should we let our employees suffer until it’s fixed?