Subscribe to Making Rain by Email

Posts Tagged “Small Giants”

Simon Sinek says the following: “Offer someone the opportunity to rebuild a company or reinvent an industry as the primary incentive, and it will attract those drawn to the challenge first and the money second.”

I believe much of what is expressed about incentivizing the salesman emanates from underestimation, condescension, and even contempt for that person and her profession.

I don’t read sales books. They make me mad. From my own experience as an executive salesman, I believe most sales managers approach the whole subject of sales incentivization ass-backwards.

In my case, this judgment comes from being an unexpected, untrained, and accidental success as an entrepreneur in elite sales outsourcing. My intent as a company founder was to build a happy life and create a community of peers who shared my values. While I wanted to make a comfortable living, money was not my business raison d’etre. And over the years I have managed to assemble a coterie of sales executives who, to one extent or another and in their variegated ways, were compadres in the realm of service, morals, humor, and fierce independence.

After 20 years of sales success emanating from my personal sales intuition and longing to be part of an ethical sales and service community, I began to discover I was not as odd or alone in my approach as I had always assumed. And even more, there is an increasing body of scholarly research that supports the instincts of my life experience.

This is particularly true in the realm of sales incentivization. My core assumption has always been that good salespersons don’t fundamentally work just for money. Rather, they work for satisfaction, service, happiness, a free life and other non-quantifiables as much as for money. Research has shown that, after reaching a threshold of $75,000 or so, money has limited ability to incentivize. (Note, Conscious Capitalism and the Small Giants community).

Dr. Edward Deci, Director of the University of Rochester’s Human Motivation Program says:

“When people say that money motivates, what they really mean is that money controls. And when It does, people become alienated–they give up some of their authenticity–and they push themselves to do what they think they must do.” (Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation).

I have always felt that salesmen are particularly misunderstood. I’m told that sales hires fail 75 percent of the time within the first year. That is a phenomenal statistic. While the reasons for this are complex, I believe the overemphasis on monetary reward is a large part of it.

People want to be part of an organization that imbues quality and meaning to their lives. Yes, they need to make money, but I don’t believe it ever activates their ardor and deep commitment. It does not inspire full use of their internal resources, their full being, their passion.

When I ran my executive sales outsourcing firm Corporate Rain International, I genuinely tried to start with the assumption that every person I hired should be better than me, that every person I hired could teach me something, that each person I hired could comfortably grow the extant values of my company as a corporate companion.

To quote Edward Deci again, “[In speaking about motivation] the proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves.'”

I agree. Thank you, Edward Deci.

Comments 4 Comments »

8551937456_9f2c1544d3Elizabethan poet and playwright Francis Bacon once said, “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not, a sense of humor for what he is.”

Recently I was at a meeting of fellow Inc. 5000 company owners who periodically meet to share, dialogue, and solve business conundrums together. I found myself laughing uproariously there. It got me thinking about humor and business ownership.

I harked back to a column I read last year by Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes. Smith pointed to a survey done by Robert Half International which showed 91% of executives found humor imperative for career advancement and 84% found people with a sense of humor do better work.

There are several reasons humor can be a powerful business tool. Here are some I especially esteem.

  1. Humor creates mindfulness, perspective, and balance. If laughter is a part of you and your company’s life, it reduces anus clinching anxiety and fear. It relaxes you. For example, Dr. Julia Wilkins cites an experiment using episodes of Seinfeld to measure tolerance to pain thresholds. After viewing a Seinfeld video, results showed pain tolerance to be much higher. The process of laughter caused a serotonin release similar to aerobic exercise. Laughter causes you to breather deeper. You feel better.
  2. Humor builds culture. Laughter promotes a sense of unity and shared culture. It boosts comraderie. It builds corporate empathy.
  3. Humor facilitates creativity. Laughter opens you to the absurd and the impossible. It encourages playing with concepts, taking risks, and considering the outrageous.
  4. Humor humanizes leaders. It nurtures a sense of “we are all in this together.” It can be a key component of empathetic leadership.

seinfeld_on_stage1-667x368Humor is great within your own firm, but I find healthy leadership needs a home for humor outside the confined community of my own company. Certainly joining a convivial, discreet organization of your peers gives an outlet for letting your hair down and being yourself in all your profound non-rationality.

Free flowing silliness and laughter is not the easiest thing to come by for a business owner. It is not necessarily prudent to share all your uncensored business mind with your employees or your clients or the world at large. Yet the successful entrepreneurs I know are remarkably funny people. Often wickedly funny. (You can find it at places like the upcoming Inc. GrowCo, as well as places like Vistage, EO, Conscious Capitalism, Small Giants, among others.)

The role of leading a small business can be a lonely enterprise. (I wrote about this last year in this column.) ( “The Peculiar Loneliness of Entrepreneurship”.) No one but another entrepreneur can fully understand the special frisson of fear and excitement each day holds for the high-risk small business striver. It is an infinitely not boring experience. Yet it is not something that you can truly share in its unfettered joy and horror even with your wife. To try to talk about your daily trials and tribulations would load an unnecessary burden on your intimates and, really, to what point? It’s cryptic to anyone who is not living in it. Each of our businesses is unique and peculiar, but the business ocean we swim in is common to all of us.

A place of real safety to talk openly with very smart colleagues is great. I find myself relaxing with an almost palpable emotional sigh when I enter a meeting of my peers. And humor is frequently a predominant mode of sharing in peer business communities. A lot of the humor is mordant and dark, but it comes from an ambient sense of relief at being in a safe harbor, a non-darwinian grotto of relief from the sturris of a darwinian world. William_James_b1842bThere is a glow of irenic happiness in being with one’s own kind–one’s own little supportive ghetto.

This may not be a particularly profound thought, but participation in a safe, outside personal business community of peers is surely healthful for the mindful business psyche. And the release of business anxiety and uncertainty through humor often frees up the animal spirits and the playfulness from whence cometh innovation and ideas.

Psychologist and philosopher William James said, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is common sense, dancing.” Thank you, William.

Comments 6 Comments »

EL3A2844-bioIf you’re looking for a startlingly honest take on entrepreneurship, look no further than The Poetry of Small Business: An Accidental Entrepreneur’s Search for Meaning by Timothy Askew.

A long-time columnist for, Tim writes from his heart with a passion and personality that are rarely seen in business writing. He takes on topics often ignored in business, such as the upside to eccentricity, the downside to “look at me-ism” and smartphone slavery, and the ultimate entrepreneurial challenge: loneliness. Tim’s inclination to take a stance on subjects and risk rubbing people the wrong way has no doubt earned him a following online.

Full disclosure, I might be a little biased because I helped edit the book. But honestly, Tim is an excellent writer who has a unique voice. He’s insightful, funny, and I enjoyed working with him very much.

You can (and should) buy the book on Amazon.

Here’s what other people are saying about The Poetry of Small Business:

The_Poetry_of_Small__Cover_for_Kindle“I have long been an admirer and reader of Tim Askew’s wonderful weekly blog, Making Rain, and so I am hardly surprised to find that ‘The Poetry of Small Business’ is a beautifully written ode to entrepreneurship, filled with piercing insights into and wise reflections on the entrepreneurial life. But don’t be misled by the title: This book is also an immensely practical guide to getting the most out of your business.”

Bo Burlingham, editor-at-large of Inc. Magazine and best-selling author of Small Giants and Finish Big

“Tim Askew has a gift for identifying and naming topics on the minds of entrepreneurs—and then providing fresh perspectives that make you stop and think differently.”

Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and best-selling author of Setting the Table

Danny_Meyer_FT_Charity_Wine_Dinner_2010“If you want to know what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur, read this. And if you want hints about success, real hints, real success, then really read this book again. Slowly.”

Howard Moskowitz, Chairman, Mind Genomics Associates and best-seller author of Selling Blue Elephants


Comments 14 Comments »

Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”

41RflFJ7QtL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Seminal business writer and Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham, author of Small Giants, has done it again. His new book, Finish Big, just came out and it fills a gaping hole in the literature of the “entrepreneurial exit.” It should be read immediately by anyone who is a successful entrepreneur, but with even more alacrity by the tyro business striver. Much like what Yogi Berra intends to say in the above quote, Burlingham avers that all small businesswomen and men need to begin their businesses with a clear eye to their endgame as an integral part of developing successful capitalist enterprise.

As Burlingham puts it, “Let’s begin with a general rule: The earlier you start preparing for an exit, the more likely it is that you’ll have a happy one.” He notes that many entrepreneurs who’ve been through the whole exit process will tell you it’s much harder to leave a company than to start one. He points to the old saying: “You should build a business today as if you will own it forever but could sell it tomorrow.”

Burlingham bases his book on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. All business owners will eventually have to leave or exit their roles as CEOs and owners.
  2. Every company, large, small, or middling, will inevitably be sold or liquidated.

As entrepreneurs we do not want to think about the end of our company. It’s like people who put off their will because they don”t like to deal with the inevitability of death. (Indeed, Paul Saginaw, Co-founder of of Zingerman’s Delicatessan in Ann Arbor, MI, at one point tells Bo, “Currently our exit strategy is death.”)

Also, planning for an exit is surely the last thing any of us would want to consider when we gaze on that Mt. Everest of urgent tasks each of us has waiting on the desk every day. As Gary Hirshberg, the chairman and co-founder of Stoneyfield Farm, puts it, “Everything you do in business is preparing for the endgame, whether you know it or not. A lot of us don’t know it because we are so focused on survival.”

Furthermore, the odds are bloody well against you in making a successful exit from your firm. Burlingham points out that a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study found that only 20 percent of companies put up for sale ultimately are sold, meaning that four out of five prospective sellers are unsuccessful. He estimates that between 65-75 percent of owners who would like to sell never even make it into the market. 

Bart_Nagel_--_8147_400x400Bo describes eight common qualities and actions of owners who make good exits. They are (to paraphrase):

  1. Having a crystal clear understanding of who you are, what you wanted out of your business and why.
  2. Consciously building a sellable company over the lifespan of your firm.
  3. Allowing plenty of time to prepare.
  4. Preparing a successor and allowing time to be wrong about that choice at least once.
  5. Seeking help from colleagues and advisers who have gone through the process.
  6. Taking care of your employees and investors.
  7. As a seller, being very cautious–and understanding the essence and motivations of buyers.
  8. Being aware of what you want to do next and allowing yourself personal time to “metamorphose” into a new identity. 

Finish Big is a highly readable book, rich in original research. It draws on Burlingham’s lifetime of enduring and intimate relationships. He’s a remarkable storyteller and his book is full of telling personal anecdote. (He conducted more than 75 interviews with current and former business owners about their business exits.)

But, for me, the best thing about Bo’s Finish Big, as with his celebrated previous book Small Giants, is his pure love of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneur. This love is palpable and personal. He writes with a deeply imbued spiritual generosity and sense of service to our entrepreneurial community. Yet he is unsentimental and even can be quite rough on some of his very human subjects, though never without sympathy. Burlingham truly cherishes the questing, courageous, non-venal qualities of great entrepreneurial owners, with a writing style that is not self-aggrandizing, yet is authoritative.

Serious entrepreneurs should read Finish Big. Now, not later.

Comments 8 Comments »

Corporate culture is money.

PaulI have always maintained that my associates and colleagues at  my firm Corporate Rain are more important to me than my clients.  Yup.  I even say it to clients.  After 18 years, my employee colleagues are my PR department, my marketing department, my branding, my essence.  I feel very confident that any of the 25 persons in my boutique executive sales firm would describe our tone, service and ethics quite as I would.  It’s a very secure and happy feeling as a business owner.

Last week I attended the Inc. 500/5000 Convention in Washington D.C.  I dropped in on a speech by Paul Spiegelman, Chief Culture Officer of Stericycle and former CEO of The Beryl Corporations, recently acquired by Stericycle.  He is also the Founder of the Inc. Small Giants Community, an organization focused on values-based business principals and inspired by Bo Burlingham’s wonderful best-seller Small Giants.  (2007, Portfolio Trade)

Paul feels that treating your employees with respect and care isn’t just the right thing to do, but the practical, profitable thing to do.  At The Beryl Companies he states, “Our company and our philosophy was built around the idea of employee engagement.  We created an environment where people enjoy and share commitment to what they do every day”.

untitledSpiegelman expresses confidence that a large part of his success in dominating his corner of the outsourced hospital call center market place was because of his commitment to his employee’s happiness  in an employee-focused culture.  He states his was not the cheapest outsourced service by a long shot, sometimes charging up to 60% more than his competitors.  But when clients visited his call-center or spoke with his people, the happiness and unanimity of esprit de corps was palpable.  Clients noticed and bought into it.  Speigelman’s 400 person, single-site company and his creation of ambient concierge service molded a core for long-term ROI, as well as healthy and sustained growth, through carefully nurturing the everyday happiness of his employees over a long period of time.

Furthermore, Spiegelman has recently helped found the Return on Value (ROV) research project at Benedictine University in Chicago.  This is a $1 million dollar, three year initiative which asks the question, “In small and mid-size businesses, what is the relationship between culture and profit?”  ROV seeks to show the monetizing proof of a generous, employee-focused corporate culture.  (If you want to read more about Paul’s point of view, try

Howard SchultzAs I see it, Paul Spiegelman’s approach is basically an attempt to institutionalize goodness, decency, and happiness.  His intuitions and practical business beliefs about corporate culture, which I certainly share, are buttressed by implication in some of the recent research of Dr. Adam Grant at Wharton on creating a “giving” culture.  His research will be published soon in a new book called Give and Take.  (Note my previous post of April 30, 2013, “Adam Grant, Goodness, and Entrepreneurship”)

Certainly healthy corporate longevity means through-branding  a long-term commitment to corporate mission and culture.  Howard Schultz says in Pour Your Heart Into It:  How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, “To be an enduring, great company, you have to build a mechanism for preventing or solving problems that will outlast any one individual.”  Thank you, Howard.

Comments 32 Comments »

Corporate Rain International on Facebook