Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Umbrella Story, Part One

In my business parable book, The Umbrella Story, we tell a story that fits our current economic climate.

The story is about a guy, Joe, that makes stuff ( he manufactures umbrellas) and a guy, named Bill, that sells stuff (he runs a store that sells outdoors stuff, including umbrellas).

When our story begins, we learn how much passion the manufacturer has--he loves to build umbrellas, to tweak them, to make improve their technology. He isn't very good with people, in fact, he'd rather just focus on building umbrellas. He needs someone to sell his stuff.

Bill, the store owner, of the other hand, loves people, loves selling and couldn't manufacture something if his live depended on it. He needs stuff to sell.

They forge a relationship and find that as a partnership they can do great things.

The problem is that as time goes on, they drift apart and face obstacles that tear them apart to the point that they no longer thrive together.

In this tough economy, look at what is going on. In many cases the manufacturers--the Joes--are reneging on promises to the dealers that sell their products. Conversely, the dealers--the Bills--are less loyal than ever to the manufactures and are selling anything to make a buck and finding ways to manipulate their agreements with the manufacturer.

Today, more than ever, the Joes and Bills need to realize that they need to work together--have the best built product and to sell it to customers that will keep coming back.

In tomorrow's post, I'll share the one thing that they both forgot as their relationship deteriorated.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov & Beyond

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Advertise more in a tough economy?

The New Yorker recently published an article entitled, "Hanging Tough." The premise: throughout modern business history, those companies that were aggressive and continued to advertise themselves with fervor not only survived recessions and depressions, but actually were the ones that became dominant players in their industries.

As the CEO of a marketing company, I appreciate articles such as this one - but can only agree to an extent.

In tough economic times it is a temptation to scale back, to be fearful, to be passive. And there are companies that increased their advertising and were successful during those times. But I believe the real interpretation of this is as follows.

In tough economic times, you must run your company so it can 1) succeed and 2) grow. For it to succeed, you have to cut anything that is a waste or extravagance. This allows the company to make decisions based on clear thinking as opposed to fear or desperation. A desperate company makes desperate decisions.

In addition, the company must continue to focus on healthy, profitable growth, as much or more than it did in the good times. That may mean increasing advertising. It may not. Look at your ideal growth opportunities--what do you need to do to achieve them? Will it take better sales training? Better PR? Aggressive expansion of current client relationships? New product development?

True, many uber-successful companies in the past dramatically increased their advertising to grow. But times have changed. Non-traditional opportunities to grow are out there. The companies that are aggressive for growth (whether it be traditional advertising or not) and are run intelligently will be the big winners.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hiring is tough in this economy

I found a recent Seth Godin blog post fascinating. His position is that it's tougher to get the "A-players" today because the people being let go are more often the "C-players."

Think about it. It makes sense. Who will most companies lay-off? Certainly not the very best people, as a rule.

What about this question? What clients are available in this tough economy? Are they the A-clients or the C-clients?

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Monday, April 27, 2009

I need 80,000 sales right now!

It's the sales person's nightmare. The entrepreneur's dilemma... The need to sell a ton, now.

When I started my company, I'd wake up in the morning feeling I had no momentum. My job was to get everything kick started and push as hard as possible until I collapsed at the end of the day. Luckily I was young and could withstand the stress. That may explain why I started out with a full head of hair that is merely a memory today.

I literally felt that I needed to close thousands of sales right away. I finally started making progress when I realized that before I could make 10 sales, I had to sell my first one. Then my second, etc.

I also realized that I didn't--repeat--didn't need a bunch of sales--I really needed one or maybe two more.

Look at your customer list. Do you really need a hundred or so more? Or do you really need a couple more good ones? When I learned to focus on reality and finally got out of my own way, I could actually focus on the few real good prospects that I wanted to sell.

It's like the old Steve Martin comedy routine. He would pronounce that "Do you want to know how you can make a million dollars and NOT spend a dime on taxes?" His answer was, "First, start with a million dollars."

Want to know how to get 10 more clients? First, start by getting the first one.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Six Lists #2

In the previous post, we looked at listing the clients that were: 1) your favorites, most profitable, most appreciative and also 2) those that weren't favorites, were not profitable, not appreciative of your work.

I did that years ago and at first felt elated--it was amazing to see that I really only had two types of clients. However, my emotions plummeted when I looked at the "bad" list and noticed it was a much longer list than the "good" one. To further kick me in the gut, I was also initially confused--what made a client "good"?

Here's what to do after you make your lists. First, identify what the "good" clients have in common. In our case, those clients all sold through sales channels such as dealers or distributors. That became my company's niche. We haven't wavered from it since.

Second, do the math. If you eliminate the "bad" clients, what will happen? Ideally, you'll have more time to spend on the good ones and will lose little to no profit saying goodbye to them.

If that's the case, set out to eliminate those clients. Do it with respect to them. But don't be surprised if it's not a big deal to them--after all, they weren't all that knocked out by your company.

Now you know your niche and you have more time to focus on getting clients that fit it. What could be better?

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov & Beyond

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Six Lists #1

When my business was about ten years old, we had an issue. Things were getting too complicated, it wasn't as fun, profits were down. We were busy but it felt like we were in a constant battle.

I gathered my top people and asked them to put together the following lists. I asked them to list our:

1) Favorite clients
2) Least favorite clients
3) Most profitable clients
4) Least profitable clients
5) Clients who appreciated us
6) Clients who didn't appreciate us

When we were done--we did not have six lists--we had two. The clients that were our favorites, were profitable and they appreciated us. The ones who were not favorites, were not profitable and they didn't appreciate us.

Try it--see if you get the same results...Next, we'll discuss what you do about it.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Alternative to economic worry

Sales are down. A customer drops your company or maybe a client gets fired and your relationship is at risk.

The usual reaction all too often is to worry and wait. Worry about what might happen--could there be layoffs, salary reductions? Wait for the boss, the president, the sales person--whoever--at your company to come through and replace the business. While you wait, you worry more--it may take a long time to ever overcome that loss of business. As this cycle continues, morale slips, performance goes down, anxiety is rampant.

The result is that a small portion of the company is actually focused on being productive, while the majority of the employees are paralyzed or worse.

The alternative is to focus your energy on growth. Look for growth anywhere--start with your current clients, even the ones cutting back--they may need help, they may need your knowledge, your entrepreneurialism.

If you want to increase your job security, focus on helping your company grow in as many ways as possible.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov & Beyond

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Yankee Years

I just read Joe Torre's book on his managerial career with the New York Yankees. This posting is not about sports--it's about a great learning I had after reading the book.

Torre's Yankees won four World Series during a five year span. As I read the book I learned why--the teams he assembled were real teams--not a group of solo performers. Those guys cared about winning, they did what it took to help the team. His teams stopped winning World series after those guys retired and the Yankees replaced them with "superstars."

Those superstars hit a lot of home runs and were quite famous, but they didn't connect with their teammates.

Just like in business. How many times have you had an employee that was a "superstar" undermine or hurt your company? It happens all the time.

We need to realize--I need to realize--that even if a person is supposedly "great" that if they aren't willing to be part of the team, they are liabilities. Sounds easy, but is it hard to realize it and even harder to do something about it. How do you fire Alex Rodriguez?

Monday, April 20, 2009


I admit it, I am a stickler for clear communications. I drive people nuts because I need to know exactly what they mean. Sometimes I'm in a meeting and I'm the only person that has to get clarification on an issue--but then again, maybe I'm the only one asking the question.

I work with a wonderful person who was about to have a serious discussion with her team. She told me her overall message was that it was time for her team "to raise the bar." "Raise the bar" or "get your head in gear" or "stop treading water" and other phrases are well intentioned, but come on, what do they mean? At best they mean different things to different people. More likely, they serve no useful purpose and confuse things.

Maybe we avoid being specific in what we expect because we don't want to hurt people's feelings. Maybe we're afraid that if we're too specific, that people will only do exactly what we say and nothing more. It's our job as leaders to do our job--to think before we exhort. To analyze exactly what we want, so that we can help our teams perform.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my mom was angry with my brother and me. It was our job to clean the house every night after we came home from school. She told me (this is putting it nicely) that we forget to empty the trash. My answer was that it wasn't on the list and I was sorry. My brother and I then made sure that was on our list every day. It became part of our daily routine.

That's the same thing we need to do with our people. Be as specific as possible and if we need to add to the list, do it. It will help our employees and it will allow us to serve our clients better. That's all I have time to discuss today, I have to take out the trash.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pay it Forward

When I was in my mid-20s trying to build our business, I had the fortune of working with three clients that helped me grow.

Each of these three guys - they never met and probably wouldn't been buddies because of how different they were - guided me. They gave me a chance. These guys were real old - each was about 40 years old at the time. They were successful execs at businesses, and they had a lot of things going on, but they gave me time. I've been grateful for them and think of them often. They set an example for me, one that I try my best to emulate.

My company recently interviewed Marc Lefton of AdHoles, one of the Web's first true social networking sites. He pretty much said that the purpose of the site was to Pay it Forward, to help young people in their careers.

I've often wondered why my "three amigos" helped me as much as they did. Was it because they saw themselves in me? Did I show more respect to them than others?

Maybe they each had someone in their lives that had reached out and guided them when they young. Maybe they were paying it forward...

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov & Beyond

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Speak the Language

Communications can be mysterious - how can you best tell your story? how do you influence someone, how do you make the sale?

How often do you read a brochure or an ad or look at a Web site and roll your eyes or fall asleep while reading the verbiage? Probably too often.

A simple answer is to look at it from the standpoint of language. If you were selling a product or service to someone located in Italy, it might be good to know their language - sure, they could work at understanding English, but why take a chance on them missing some important nuance?

The same goes for our products and services. Our clients speak their own language, they value certain things and they articulate those things in their own way. First, of course, we need to learn from them so that we can better speak their language and use the phrases they are comfortable with. Then, we need to set aside our own language bias and speak to them in phrases, words that they are most comfortable with.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Unknown

Think back on some of your greatest moments in your life - were you always prepared for them? Did you have a a good idea of what was in store?

Most of the time, when we meet our future spouse or we hit that little white ball and it rolls into the cup for a hole-in-one, we're elated, but we're more surprised than anything. I've witnessed three holes-in-one in my life and not once was I thinking about that outcome before the ball was hit. On the other hand, I have wished for a hole-in-one hundreds of times and have fallen short each time.

That's what we have to remember in business - especially today. Sure, the client says he has no money, but why not tell him the idea you have anyway? He might like it. Sure, the client's industry is down 60 percent, but why not try to find ways to help them gain market share? It just might work. We can't be afraid of the unknown.

We shouldn't limit our success because we've decided in advance that something is just not worth trying. Go ahead. Share the idea. Talk to the client. What will it hurt?

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Our People Make The Difference"

Ask the average business person about his or her company and why it's been successful, and the expected two-word answer will usually emerge, "Our people."

That's fine. But if practically every company says that - including the lousy ones - is it really true? That means your people are superior lifeforms than those at the competition? Can't we do a little better than "Our people is what makes us who we are"? Isn't there a more accurate, interesting answer?

Maybe it's your technology or your niche or your focus on customer experience or your innovation. Or maybe it's your unique combination of some of all of those things.

No prospective customer will put millions of dollars on the table and fork it over to you simply because we say our people are the key. We need to explain how our people are doing great things that only happen here at our company.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Energized Differentiation

In John Gerzema's book, The Brand Bubble, he states that it isn't enough for a brand to be different. It has to be constantly evolving to be a premier brand.

A great example is Apple. Apple's been different from Day One. But what makes it a phenomena are all the new ideas and products it seems to be constantly coming out with. No one loves Apple because they get misty-eyed thinking of their old Apple II or Newton Message Pad. Apple has a fanatic consumer base that can't wait to learn (and purchase) whatever genius idea is being generated by them next. For Apple as a brand, that's its "energized differentiation," as Gerzema calls it, constantly evolving ideas that make your brand unique.

The same holds true for music. The Beatles, Springsteen, Dylan as well as bands such as Yes at their peak had a fanatic fan base that were on the edge of their seats waiting to hear where those artists took their music. That's why record sales and the music business were so alive and successful back then. Which also explains why the music business is different today. Beyonce, Maria Carey, Britney Spears - they're all different, yes, but are their fans waiting for the next evolution of their music? Probably not.

The same goes with our businesses. It's not enough that we're different. How have we improved, grown or innovated lately so our fans, our loyal customers, stay engaged? Where will our energized differentiation come from?

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov & Beyond

Friday, April 10, 2009

Time to Pick the Stems

When I toured wine country, I toured Paul Hobbs Winery. Paul is a well-known wine consultant who is regarded as one of the "big guys" in the business. His vineyards are in California as well as Argentina.

His marketing director, Claire LuCroq, told me how fortunate my timing was, because it was "crush." Crush, I learned, was harvest time. Think of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show or U2 coming to town - a big deal, lots of excitement.

A wine operation is part high-tech and part low-tech. After touring the "techy" part of the operation, Claire brought me over to the conveyor belt where the workers pulled the stems off thousands of grapes, one stem at a time. Very meticulous work.

She then introduced me to each person at the conveyor belt by name. I complimented her on how she could remember the names of so many people. She said it was easy.

These people were also the customer service rep, the admin director, the office manager, the sales rep, etc. When the manpower was needed, everyone pitched in, no matter how tedious the job.

Claire told me, "Paul makes it very clear that if you want to work in this business, you have to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. If you don't like to do that, you shouldn't be here."

Smart in many ways: 1) Paul made it clear what is expected upfront and 2) Only people that love the business and want to pitch in will join that company. Kind of simplifies things, doesn't it?

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Story Makes it Taste Even Better

Take a tour of wine country and you'll learn about wine - and the value of a great story.

I recently went to some cult (meaning expensive) wineries in Sonoma and Napa Valley. I had the chance to meet the vintners (owners) and, of course, got to sample some wonderful wine.

But the best wineries all had one thing in common. Each had its unique story. One owner told of how he accidentally happened upon his winery. Another had learned at the feet of the finest French wine experts. Yet another was a family business - they told of how their dad started the business and how the family is taking it into the 21st century. Only one that I visited had no story, nothing unique or memorable about it.

The best wineries didn't allow me to taste their wine until they shared their story. When I did taste their wine, I appreciated it, it felt special to me. Coincidentally, the winery with no special story was a disappointment - and their wine didn't knock me out.

Makes sense. A customer can get a widget anywhere. But if you want that customer to become a fan, to have passion about your company, they first need to know the story about why that widget was created. They need to know your story.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov & Beyond

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The difference between simple and easy...

In business, and in life, we want things simple and easy. Well, choose one, because you can't always have both.

Running a business can be simple: do the right things, be smart with finances, hire and keep good people, avoid doing the wrong things. Simple.

But that stuff isn't necessarily easy. It isn't easy be fiscally responsible (it's not fun, it's not good for the ego). It isn't easy saying no to clients that might want "favors" or inappropriate treatment. It isn't easy to hire the right person and reject the wrong one (even if the wrong one has more experience or claims to have an "in" with a prospective client).

Perhaps this is the answer: If your focus is on what's easy, life will be complicated. If you focus on what is simple and right, life and business will be pretty easy.

Barry LaBov, CEO
LaBov and Beyond

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The difference between beauty, talent and integrity

There's nothing more impressive than a beautiful actress or actor--pick your favorite--but what do they look like in reality?

When I was a young, aspiring musician I went to Hollywood and while I was at a phone booth (remember them?) calling prospective agents and record labels, I enjoyed the show. It so happens that phone booth was located near a noted plastic surgery center. While I stood there making calls, I was treated to seeing dozens of the most famous celebrities walk past me on the way in to the center. I have to tell you, some of the most beautiful people in the world were downright average looking or worse. Some had beauty-- a ghoulish beauty.

Some of the my favorite songs were written or performed by recording artists that had a lot of personal addiction issues or they cheated on their spouses or threw TV sets through hotel room windows.

Then there are people that I didn't really love as performers--Neil Young, as an example--that I now admire because of his integrity. Yeah, he may have a whiny voice, yeah, he has stringy hair. But, he has integrity in his life. He's trying to save the world with his souped up '59 Lincoln biodiesel car.

As I get older, I'm less interested in surface-level beauty and more impressed with what's deep inside.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Crazy client contracts

I had spent a year trying to land a great client. The client contact was a great guy, a real open, honest guy.

We had one last hurdle--the master services agreement--the agreement my company had to sign to become an approved supplier.

To my client's credit, he warned, "If you read this contract and want to change it, I won't blame you, but don't expect my company to change it. And if they do, it'll take so long, it won't be worth it."

If it weren't for my understanding of the client contact, I would have thought he was trying to bluff me into signing it. But he wasn't bluffing, I could tell.

I looked through the verbiage and it was pretty extraordinary. Basically if my company did a bad job, we'd be chewed up and spit out.

No doubt, many supplier companies would send the agreement to their lawyer and after a few thousand bucks of lawyer time, a marked up version would be sent to the client, only to have it sit and sit and sit.

There is no single answer to this situation. But, there is an advantage to the company that signs--they'll have few competitors that are willing to join them in serving that client. So if the client is a good one, you win if you sign. If they're a bad one, you'll regret it.

So then it doesn't come down to the contract after all.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Beautiful Side of Ugly Politics

I'm not a real political guy. I think if we blame one person for all our problems, then that means we think one person can solve all our problems. That sounds crazy to me.

The last few years, Americans have become more polarized. More anger has been expressed. More disagreement. But there is a good side to all this.

Americans are paying attention to what's happening in this country. More Americans are voting. Sure, we get out of line and can be pompous with our opinions. But at least we're more engaged than we have been in decades.

With engagement comes hope.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Technology--Stress reduction or stress creation?

When I first got my PDA, I loved it. I didn't have to worry about what emails came in while I was away from the office. I had it right in front of me. Stress relief.

But that was before I knew what PDA stood for. I thought it meant personal digital assistant. I was wrong.

PDA stands for Pavlov's Dog Assistant. When we hear that beep, instead of salivating, we jump to the PDA and look at what just happened. If we don't hear the beep, we press a button to check if anything came in that we missed. We don't go to an event with our kids, we don't go to church, we don't go for a walk and we don't even meditate without it. We allow this technology to interrupt conversations, thoughts and relaxation...

Maybe it's time to stop waiting for the bell or the beep and turn off the chimes. Let's leave the PDA behind when we're doing non-business things or when we are giving someone our full attention and see if the world is still there when we check our PDA later. I bet it will be.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Get Rid of Mass Communications

Want to increase business? Improve morale? Reduce mistakes? Minimize how many people you insult?

Reduce or eliminate mass communications--you know, the "Dear Owner" or "Dear So and So Customer" letters or emails that are sent out everyday.

We can all spot a generic communication. How do you respond? I usually don't read it. I throw it out without opening it up.

Why would you give money to a cause, no matter how good it is, that asks for money through a generic letter? Would you hire an employee that sends a generic "To whom it may concern" letter alerting you to his or her talents?

If you have 150 potential donors, why not a handwritten note to each? If you have a universe of less than 200 customers or prospects, why would you ever send form letters?

It takes more time to personalize. It takes more thought. You actually have to care enough to do it. And more people will read it if it's personal.

The less mass communications you do, the stronger your results.