Archives for October 2013

Understanding Innovation: Learn From What “Wows” You!

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Innovation is easy to learn from real life experience.  How?  Find products you consume that simply “wow” you, make you talk and make you want to learn more.  Experience them, research them, and reverse engineer to YOUR business model if there is something worthy of “borrowing.”

The process is simple:

  • Find a product you use that makes you talk about, brag, say “try this!”

  • Study the packaging, one of the most critical elements of branding

  • Do some basic research:  Check out the social channels, website, basic Google news/buzz

  • Write down what’s working for the product, ultimately what can be “borrowed.”

Innovation does not need to be a R&D break-through to work.  It also does not need to be driven by costly third party agencies that have a knack for mystifying the process.

But it does need to be special to matter.  More importantly, all the elements of the marketing mix must come together to create a brand loyalist.  Here’s one that nails the equation.

My wife brought the following home:  Popcorn Indiana, “Black & White Kettle corn.”  It was so good the devil must have made it.

Popcorn Indiana Black & White Popcorn

We are not big popcorn eaters, but we are always hunting for the new & different.  This hit the mark.  The combination of chocolate and salt is out of this world.  Guess what else is?

  • The packaging – There are so many health & “quality” claims I’m almost convinced I’m eating a banana.
  • The social media call-outs.  Even better?  Their social media engagement.  They get that social without being “social” is useless. They clearly have standards in place on response time, engagement, and are clearly having fun.  And why not, this is popcorn right?
  • Their website and product line-up – Flavors and unique combinations is what they do; now I want to try the others.  Multimedia, clean images, they simple messaging very well.
  • The founder of the company is somewhat of a serial entrepreneur… can learn a ton by learning about a founder.

I don’t know specifics about the Popcorn category, but it’s fair to assume since it’s a salty snack that it is dominated by big players like Frito Lay.  Low cost producers with massive distribution networks and marketing spending.  Can’t out-spend or “out-muscle” the big boys.

But you can always build a winnable plan that doesn’t confront them head to head.

Innovation should be at the top of the list for differentiating a business.  Being different and unique always serves a simple purpose:  It makes direct comparisons difficult.

When that happens, price is less of a factor…

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The Value of An Emergency Fund is NOT Just For Emergencies

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Emergency funds, that infamous 3-6 months of living expenses that are supposed to cover you in the event of a job loss, or some other unexpected event.  Financial planners long have advocated them as smart financial planning.  They are right, but they are DEAD WRONG on 3-6 months.  That may have worked before the 2000’s, no longer.

Strive for 12 months…..the economy is changing too rapidly to be covered for less….

Emergency Fund

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I would argue the following for people that have less than 3 months of living expenses (the majority of folks):

  • They are ultra-tentative.  They play it safe and lay low.
  • They “tense up” in confrontational situations.  They may avoid conflict all together.  Impossible to perform in business, sports or any profession when you’re tight vs. loose.
  • No bold risk taking.  Striking out often comes with swinging for the fences.  Failure is avoided at all costs when your paycheck to paycheck.
  • They live by OTHER principles, not their own.  When you operate under someone else’s rules vs. your own, will you be more happy or less?
  • They have an overwhelming tendency to stay “under the radar.”

IF you agree that the above points characterize those without a cash cushion, than wouldn’t the opposite be present for those WITH one?

So let’s think about this:  Having a strong cash cushion, close to 12 months of living expenses means you are MORE likely to…..

  • NOT be content with flying under the radar, they want to be “in the mix.”  High profile, big projects that matter, even with small likely-hood for success
  • Embrace conflict, even if it’s messy
  • Have a clear vision of how you want to contribute, related to the business goals.
  • Are OK taking risks and playing loose.

Is it fair to paint this “opposite” portrayal simply due to one’s checking account/liquidity?  Of course not!  It is one element of many that starts to tilt the deck in your favor….

Doesn’t it make sense that FEAR is a detractor in your pursuit of EXCELLENCE when it comes to performance?  Financial IN-security fuels fear.  Build your emergency fund and start playing loose.  

Leadership Edge


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Third Screen as Motivational Buddy: Will Smith

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Few people watch TV like they used too.  One show can rarely command my un-divided attention.  The laptop is open, and the I-pad is usually playing something from YouTube.  The classic “3 screen” household, and there are many.

Use the third (or second) screen as a learning or motivational tool.  Background noise might as well be productive.  It is so simple to open YouTube and type in “Motivation” or any term that you’re interested in to learn something or to just stay sharp.  It’s amazing how many people don’t do it.  There are those that Hustle, and there are those that waste time watching TV.

Want a great one?  How about Will Smith.

Known for his numerous blockbuster hits, what is more intriguing is the inner fire he brings to his craft. There’s a ton of Hustle and inspiration to be learned from this star.  The videos do him much better justice.  



And one of the great scenes from The Pursuit of Happiness.


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“I Went to School for THIS?”

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Heard that before?  Better yet, have you SAID it before?

Translation:  This is not what I expected.  Not what I should be DOING.  Maybe not what I WANT to be doing.

It’s said so often in business it almost becomes a “throwaway line”, a conversation starter.

A “throwaway line, or conversation starter” is one end of the pendulum.  On the other end?  It’s defeatist. Borderline arrogant and dismissive of something that actually has value.  All jobs & roles have value.

In the Consumer Packaged Goods Industry (CPG), one of the most common areas you will hear this is a retail store level “sales” position. Notice that “sales” is in “”.  Many would argue that it’s not a sales role, but glorified stock person for the store you’re calling on.

A grocery store re-set is tough work.  Pulling off every single product on the shelf, and there are a bunch of them, cleaning the shelf, and re-setting it to what a new Planogram (schematic of what item should be shelved in which position) is physically draining work.  Guess what else it is or is not?  I can think of 4 things…

  1. It’s tiring, and sometimes back-numbing.  Physical work!
  2. It’s thankless.  Nobody gives you an “atta boy!” for this.
  3. It is NOT sexy.  They didn’t talk about this in your Marketing classes….
  4. No big thinking, fancy charts showing how brilliant you are crunching data and pitching a new market opportunity.

In short, the retail sales experience, and the re-sets that accompany them are in short, HUMBLING.  They also happen to be CRITICAL for anyone that aspires to Marketing or Sales leadership in CPG.  Very few college grads that start in this role rave about it.  Most view it as a stepping stone before moving onto an account sales management role where you are managing budgets and truly “Selling” to headquarter buyers.  As some would say, that type of work uses their degree.

Notice the 4 things I mention above……all have a somewhat NEGATIVE bent to them.  They were the first realizations that were measured against expectations, albeit self-imposed.

What about the things that EXCEEDED expectations?  

  1. Relationships:  The grocery store manager in south Boston that you went to a football game with, as a thank you for helping win a display contest.  The same one that appreciated the congrats note for getting his EMT certification
    • The team members who appreciated you covering for them on vacation…
  2. Becoming a trusted source for sales management, the “eyes and ears” for what’s happening in the stores.
  3. Seeing the urgency of a quarter end “push” to make the team sales number, and playing a role trying to help generate real business results, do my part, etc.

Every profession has their ground floor opportunity.  Every profession has groups of people that aspire to come OFF the ground floor to greater heights.

It’s as American as apple pie.

What is critical when mentoring a new generation of talent is to help them see the big picture and not DWELL on their ground floor opportunity

  • Expectations, whether fair or not have a tendency to damage your own morale, so check them quickly.  Hit the “re-set” button

  • Show up, answer the bell.  ALWAYS.

  • Every person they encounter will be a teacher:  They will teach them on what to do, not do, treat others, and YES, in some cases how NOT to treat others.  Bad seeds do exist, learn from them too.

  • Establish trust:  Do what you say you will do.  Do it with a smile.  Repeat every day.

  • Over-deliver:  Meet and start to exceed expectations.  Ask for more.  Ask to make more of an impact.


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Does Price Really Matter?

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Price will always play a role in the buying process.  But effort and thoughtfulness are also considerations when your buying gifts. Consumer psychology is challenging because it all factors into the decision process.

Tn. liquor stores should take a page from the wine merchants in the great state of Florida.  They worry about competing, keeping customers happy and controlling what they can control.

While on vacation in Atlanta, I had the pleasure of re-connecting with a great friend for dinner.  In preparation, I killed 2 birds with one stone, taking a long walk and finding a great bottle of wine to bring to their home.

Stop #1, the local Publix Supermarket where wine is sold.  Publix is one of the southeasts top retailers, catering to a slightly more affluent shopper than the average retailer.  They had a full aisle wine, probably about 60′ long, 6 shelves high.  That’s 360 linear feet of wine selling space, no small amount amount of square footage by any measure.

Publix Atlanta Wine aisle

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What did I see?

  • Practically every major national, well advertised brand known to man.
  • Great prices.  Did not see any bottle that was “higher” than the best price I can remember in other outlets.  Not cheaper, but certainly not higher either
  • There was simply 0 “point of purchase” material other than clearly marked prices.  Anybody that shops for wine is used to “Wine spectator points” or other informational literature by multiple bottles of wine.  You could not distinguish this aisle from the salad dressing aisle.
  • Surprisingly, I don’t remember seeing one bottle of wine over $20 per bottle.  Seemed nearly impossible that with that much selection, not ONE bottle pushed north of this threshold?  I almost picked up a bottle of Coppola Red for $20, but decided to pass.  I left the store.

Publix has a formula for selling the brands with the biggest national ad budgets (and consumer awareness as a result).  It is safe and I’m sure it’s effective for them.  But for me, on this purchase occasion, I needed “something extra.”

Exactly 3 stores down what did I stumble upon?  You guessed it, a wine shop: Ansley Wine Merchants.

Ansley Wine Merchant Atlanta

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  • This store was not radically more appealing to the eye.  Stacks of wine and liquor everywhere, although it did have a unique organization structure with country flags designating each section of the store with the varietals organized under that country’s flag.
  • Point of sale everywhere!  Want facts and interesting tidbit?  You’ll find them.
  • Service!  And if you need a hand, the guys behind the counter are willing to lend it.  They will even throw the bottle in a gift bag.
  • And if you want to spend between $5 and $1k, you have your place.
  • And there was a Yelp promo offer if you bought 6 bottles.

Needless to say, I purchased my bottle from Ansley Merchants, NOT Publix.  Not just because Publix was “too cheap”…..I’m from the school of thought that fantastic bottles can be found in EVERY price point.  But unique, “interesting” finds were simply not present at Publix, at least in my eyes.  And I felt like I was buying a bottle of salad dressing vs. learning something about my purchase.

There is always a way to compete.  There are consumers who value things beyond price.  If there are enough of them, you can be fancy and call this group of buyers a “segment.”  Pick a segment that matters and over-deliver and you can compete with the 800lb gorillas. Even when they are 2 doors down…..


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Velocity, Fear & Inertia

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If you played little league, you remember the scene well.  Every once in a while there would be a kid, or should I say “man child” that invoked FEAR in opposing teams.  Why?  Simple.  They flat out threw hard.  The kid would warm up and the pop of his catcher’s mitt could be heard from blocks away.  You could hear the ball “sing” on its flight to the plate.  Watching a kid with a special arm warm up is an lesson in intimidation.

When a kid throws hard, sometimes they are also wild.  When your wild AND throw hard, that means a painful hit by pitch is a distinct possibility.

Velocity matters in pitching.  It matters MORE in business.

Mariano Rivera - Fear

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What happens to the ball player when he is “tense” at the plate?  He tightens up.  It is nearly impossible to perform in sports when you are tight.  Same is true in business.

Fear of the downside is present in all humans.  In business it can be found in a number of areas….

  • Failure, and loosing face with your peers and bosses
  • Letting team members down
  • Deadlines, and the stress that accompanies them
  • Not being up to the job at hand, for a new assignment, promotion or project (living up to expectations)
  • Loss of security, up to and including your job (termination)
  • Fear of bringing bad news, or sensitive information forward

All of these are real.

Keeping fear at bay is a basic principle for performing at your best.  When you don’t confront fear, like in little league, you tighten up.  The likely outcome in business when you tighten up is one of businesses most deadly behaviors: INERTIA.  IN-Action.  Doing NOTHING.  Moving forward is impossible when you’re not moving at all.

How can you deal with fear in the workplace?

  1. Ask yourself:  What is the worst case scenario with this situation?
    • Termination is usually it, but also a rarity in most businesses.  What is the precedent in your organization?
  2. If you were gambling, what would you “set the odds” at the worst case scenario coming to reality?
    • Put a number to the scenario?  It’s probably in the single digit % wise!
  3. WHO can you acknowledge your feelings with proactively to confront the emotion?  How can they help you recognize it, and start to gain traction with the feeling?
    • A trusted co-worker or friend?  Your boss?  Mentor?  Find SOMEONE, but acknowledge your feelings up-front so the understand the sensitivity, recognize the need for confidence and guide you accordingly.

The important thing with Fear is to recognize it quickly, then begin the process of addressing it.  The longer you put off the feeling of fear, the longer you will experience INERTIA.

A simple principle of HUSTLE is constant motion.  Not dealing with Fear will be yet another example of ankle weights on your marathon.  Ankle weights slow down runners even at their peak fitness levels.  


Fear comes to all of us, even All-Stars.  Enjoy the greatest surrender in Major League All-Star History.

Don’t run from Fear.  Confront it.

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The Value of Your First Few Jobs….

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Sometimes it helps to think back to your first paying gigs, waaaayy back in the day.

It’s amazing what years of separation can do for lending new insights, lessons and perspective for years to come.  Anytime you travel back to the Old-school and gain new insight, write it down and share with people you mentor, lead and work with.  It will spark conversation that helps people grow.

Gaining insights into what matters with people is a fundamental that will never go out of style.

I applied this with MY first paying gigs, before I graduated high school.  There were 3:

  1. Cutting lawns around the neighborhood (first entrepreneurial gig)

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  1. Answering phones at the local church rectory (receptionist!)
  2. A retail assistant store manager at a liquor store.  Most glamorous of the bunch!

Ask yourself some basic ?’s:

  • What did you like?
  • Not Like?
  • What major learning principle helped shape you?

Lawn Cutting Biz

  • Was my own boss, so nobody forced rules upon me as I long as I made the homeowners happy.  Be nice, provide a little extra service, more value (sometimes cheaper) and people will give you a shot, even when your under-age (13!) & uninsured.  But you need to hustle.  It took over 150 flyers in mailboxes to generate 5 gigs.  Probably not bad direct response rates in 2013, but you don’t know that at 13.


  • Below minimum wage, but “under the table.”  Answering phones, greeting congregation that wanted to donate or buy mass cards.  Typically no more than 5 interactions with humans in a 4 hour stint, so had to find a way to occupy my time (homework, reading, etc).  Most exciting part was riding my moped to the job, about a 4 mile trip.  Felt like there was purpose and responsibility in showing up.  Showing up, became a bedrock principle I live by.  
  • I also learned that a position of sitting back on heels and waiting for action to come to me was not a recipe for career satisfaction.

Liquor Store

  • LIFE SHAPING.  Did it all, stocked the shelves, ran the cash register, lottery machine, trained people, cleaned the floors, sold wine, delivered beer, filled ice bags, went to a wine show and sampled at the age of 17.  Recorded back room inventory and memorized what the back room looked like, so when that $30 bottle of Absolute sold, I knew there was one in back room to replace it.
  • Knew many loyal customers by name (and their preferences) and learned that this knowledge and delivering genuine service can equate to a premium price, sometimes as much as 20% for the same item.
  • Most important?  I earned a key to the store and the trust of the owners to open and close.  I cherished that trust more than key itself.  For a teenager, keys to a car are a big deal.  Keys to the store they work out should be a bigger deal.

If you want a fun and insightful exercise, jot down a few of your first gigs.  Reflect on your key learning’s.  Ask people you work with to do the same.  SHARE.  Question.  Learn.  And if your business is doing well, call it quits and head to your local watering hole to celebrate life after the conversation.


What was your first job and how has it shaped YOUR life?  Would love to hear your comments….

Before you are a leader success is about growing yourself.  When you ARE a leader, it's about growing others.  Jack Welch

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