Entries in business (97)


What Fear Should You Face?

When preparing to record the next FrogDog Marketing Minute, I recalled to a colleague my father’s program of filming my book reports each morning throughout elementary school. As a litigator who had gotten recorded and critiqued for closing arguments during his legal training, Dad thought the exercise would help me get over my fear of public speaking.

Aside: Before my mother moved out of my childhood home, the remaining, mostly unlabeled VHS tapes stayed stowed in a drawer in the game room. In the last one I remember watching during a trip home, I wore pink pajamas as I talked through an autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt and leapt off the fireplace hearth between takes.

I suffered from crippling shyness until I forced myself to shed it in young adulthood—so I started well behind outgoing kids in the speaking regard. Thanks to Dad’s videos, my starting point had to place higher than it would have otherwise, once I put my shoulder into gaining confidence about speaking.

And, without video book reports, who knows how much longer it would have taken for me to gain a foothold in business, where I’ve had to regularly give sales presentations and speak at conferences and before groups. When you start a company, you must speak up.

No options. Sink or swim.

Today, though I’ve had colleagues and friends balk at standing in front of cameras and audiences, I walk right off the pier. Though I don’t like seeing myself on screen or hearing my voice (do I really sound like that?), I’ve gotten over myself.

Because, let’s be honest:

Obsessing about your appearance on camera or in front of an audience presumes that people pay the same amount of attention to you that they do to themselves—and that you pay to yourself.

And they don’t. As I’ve outlined before on this site, people worry so much about themselves so much of the time that they don’t have enough bandwidth to pay too much attention to someone else.

Further, with the remaining bandwidth people have to notice anything other than themselves, they notice your attitude more than what you say—whether for good or ill. Sound confident, speak with authority, and carry yourself well. Done.

Yet I wouldn’t know any of this if I hadn’t had public-speaking practice starting in elementary school, which I continued in college and graduate school and then forced on myself through my choice of career. Most people never practice what they hate—even though the more you do something, the better you get.

Without question, looking away feels easier than facing a fear—even if conquering it could transform your life. I know overcoming my fear of speaking up gave me the only way toward success in business.

And so I wonder: What else should I face that I avoid out of dislike or fear?

What skills do you need to practice? And how can you get the practice you need?


Confidence Totems

My entry in the what-not-to-wear (at the same time) category: My go-to St. George's Cross necklace and favorite Under Armour gear. August 25, 2014.

We all have them: Little, perhaps mostly unnoticeable to others, confidence-boosting lucky charms.

When I want to invoke confidence in different aspects of my life, I have go-to clothes and accessories that make me feel strong, powerful, on my game—attractive, even.

In most cases, these totems fit one life facet more than another.

For example, in business, I have a necklace I made from a Cross of Saint George, which my mother found in an antique shop during a trip to Russia. The cross harks from the country’s imperial era, when it served as a military medal recognizing “undaunted courage” in the lower ranks of soldiers.

I don’t know who originally received the medal I have or why he received it. The cross’s engraving includes his military number; I think about him when I wear it, although I have nothing to go on in fashioning his story. I can figure that he did something brave, though. Going into a tough meeting or big presentation wearing his medal makes me feel tougher.

Also, in business, especially for important meetings and presentations, I won’t wear a skirt of a dress. Whether rightly or wrongly, I feel that pants put everyone in the room on the same business footing. In fact, avoid anything overly feminine when I need gravitas at work. Dresses may feel comfortable and even pretty, but they don’t give me corporate-level confidence.

I don’t have many personal-life totems, although certain items of clothing do make me feel more attractive than others. (An important consideration for early-stage dates.)

And I do feel stronger and more athletic in my favorite Under Armour gear, although I know no one’s clothes make her workouts better—and although I’ve often felt amusement that we spend so much good money on attractive high-tech workout wear in which we still look ridiculous exercising and never use to its fullest. (I’ve never seen a race picture of me that I could stomach, no matter what I wore for the event.)

Do you have confidence totems?


Things I Love: August 2014

In thinking about services I love for my last monthly “Things I Love” post, I kept musing over little cafés I love here in Houston as well. My favorite spots have local owners and flavor, offer a relaxed and casual feel, and allow for lingering.

Te House of Tea

Te House of Tea stays open from late morning until late night offering a world of teas; healthful bites for a light lunch, dinner, or snack; bright windows looking out onto a peaceful Montrose-neighborhood street corner; and music, dancing, movies, and open-mic hours at night.

If you go before the nightlife gets started—or on one of the evenings without it—Te makes for a great spot to write and work. If you go when the party hops, you’ll see slices of Houston culture you don’t glimpse just anywhere.

Epicure Café

Epicure may tempt you in with luscious counters filled by French desserts and cookies, but don’t let the treats distract you from its huge, healthful menu of hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. Further, it offers fantastic loose-leaf tea options (I get the gunpower green tea, into which they’ll shave fresh ginger) and European coffees. At any time of the day, you can visit for dessert and drinks or get a full meal.

Epicure doesn’t offer wireless Internet, so you won’t want to boot up there to get work done, but you may find it a great spot for a networking coffee or a catch-up session with a friend.

Boomtown Coffee

Houston has an increasing wealth of independent coffee shops, of which Boomtown quickly grew into a favorite. I’d call it more café than pure coffee shop, as it has a small menu of sandwiches and light bites as well as a full range of coffees and loose-leaf teas (always a requirement to make any best-café list of mine). Boomtown provides a great place to linger with a book, get a little work or writing done via Wi-Fi, and catch up with a friend.

The spot used to stay open late, but now it closes at 7 p.m.—the only disappointment. (In fairness, it does open at 7 a.m., so you can go there for the morning and move over to Te for the evening, if you really want to café it up for a day.)

What do you love this month?


The Dangerous Cult of Personality

An entrepreneur reached out to me last week for guidance on a fundraising pitch deck. Prior to presenting to additional groups of potential investors, he wanted a casual opinion from someone who’d seen a lot of pitch presentations.

How could he make it more compelling? How could he better explain what he does and its opportunity in the market?

He has a profitable business in operation for a few years. Based on a quick conversation and high-level presentation, he has a solid vision for his venture’s future. Although investors have reason for wariness about his industry, based on slow user adoption to date, he has compelling data to show that the space has reached an inflection point: Consumer sentiment has evolved, creating the critical mass of interest needed. And his company stands as buyers’ only option.

All he needs: Cash.

Sounds great, right? What stuck in my craw?

Charisma. Or the lack of it.

Selling consumes a considerable portion of a CEO’s career. Some must sell their products and services to end users and potential investors. Many must raise money—whether in exchange for goods and services or for equity—which requires high-energy sales skills. Further, chief executives need to sell their ideas to employees, potential employees, business partners, and shareholders.

And in sales, the cult of personality trumps all.

The charisma requirement provides further proof that the good struggles to rise above the mediocre when the latter has high-powered boosters behind it, whether through personality, marketing, branding, or all of the above. Low-key, quiet types who just want to do good work—not promote, persuade, and energize—have a serious disadvantage.

People want wowing. Wooing.

People buy from people they like and who impress them. They don’t buy the idea or even the person—not his intrinsic skills or value—but how he comes across through interaction.

People back the rider, not the horse.

Too easily can presentation skills trick us into looking in one direction when we should look at something else. How many politicians would serve the public incredibly well—if only they could truly campaign? How many people will back a company in the red with poor prospects in an industry saturated with competitors and a dazzling CEO over my more low-key contact, who has a far better horse?

When one skill set doesn’t necessary complement or even feed into another, weighting the ability to sell more heavily than job skills leads to unfortunate choices.

Could the entrepreneur hire a branding and marketing firm? Yep—with the funds, which he needs to raise. Could he hire a coach? Sure, but coaches can only get you so far. Could he hire an executive—for equity—who has the needed personality? Certainly. After all, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak partnered to create Apple for the same reason. Yet hiring someone for a forward-facing role and giving him ownership requires a big and treacherous step for a business owner.

Some people would argue that leaders need big personalities for success, which means that betting on the best salesperson makes the most sense. Others have indicated that strong, silent types have led the most successful ventures. 

What say you?

How do you feel about the cult of personality?


What Homogeneity at the Sneaker Summit Says about Markets

My pair of classic Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high tops when they were new. They wouldn't have passed muster at the Sneaker Summit. January 3, 2014.

At the Sneaker Summit, I spent more time with teenagers in one place since, well, my own teenage years.

The purpose of the Summit: Buying, selling, and trading shoes. Some people had booths. Many attendees walked the venue with sneaks hoisted or in tow, displayed for inquiries. Some folks set up shop on the concrete exhibit floor or on one of the white plastic tables near the commissary.

Now, I love kicks. (Frankly, it surprised me that, based on the Summit’s attendee demographic, few other adults do.) I went to the convention excited to see rare designs from a variety of manufacturers and creators, from the big brands to the small shops to artists plying their creativity on existing models. And I went ready to shop.

Instead, I saw a lot of Nike.

In fact, I saw almost only Nike. And most of it Air Jordan.

I have no affinity for the Air Jordan, other than admiration and astonishment that the model has stayed popular for so long. (Who knew? Do most kids these days even know anything about Michael Jordan? Or does the shoe stand completely abstract in their minds, no longer associated with the former superstar baller?) Personally I lean more toward Puma and Converse, with an occasional hat tip to Vans.

Though based on limited shoe-collecting knowledge, I assume the Summit’s nearly singular focus on the Air Jordan comes from the model’s ability to hold value. After all, shoe collectors and traders parallel any other collector-and-trader group: They invest in the best bets for maximal return on investment. Options with iffy long- or short-term value get ignored and then forgotten all too easily—especially in the shadow of huge market dominators.

What does this say about markets in general?

When you make a bet, you want the best odds. What you like doesn’t matter—the possible return trumps all. When it comes to making purchase for personal use, you go with what everyone else has. How could so many people go wrong?

After all, choosing the most positively viewed offering provides a cognitive shortcut—you don’t have to weigh all the options. Further, the unknown seems risky, whether for a consumer or an investor.

Surprising? Not really.

These facts prove the difficulty of breaking in. They show that artistry and creativity and innovation mean little when not linked to established brands. They illustrate that the best and brightest don’t necessarily rise to the top in favor of the most familiar, established, and simple. They say that we may not even know what we love or could love: After all, Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments at Swarthmore College indicate that what others think changes our answers even when faced with seemingly obvious solutions to problems.

And for those of us who say we favor forward thinking, creativity, and originality—we who profess to appreciate art and ideas for their intrinsic value—these facts remind us of the narrowness of our options and worldviews and how our global markets limit the magical creativity and varied perspectives possible in our world. These facts remind us that we need to consciously look past what the market shoves in our faces and seek what we love, damn the torpedoes. These facts remind us that we need to invest at least some of our energy, time, funds, and support in areas that stoke our passions and not just our instincts for conformity and growing our pocketbooks.

Not easy. But possible.

When did you last go for what you loved, despite the markets’ pull?