Monday, October 20, 2008

Why I Killed Learn & Master Golf

I had big plans for Learn & Master Golf. It would be our first non-music project. It would be far bigger and better than anything currently available. It would make learning the game accessible to everyone. The concept made sense to me. Golf is a highly lucrative market and its instructional videos do well. Ours would be a full course on golf instruction; step-by-step learning complete with assignments and benchmarks for teaching yourself the sport on fifteen DVDs. It’s what we do.

It was also a big mistake. Sometimes my best laid plans are just plain wrong.

Nearly a year after we’d started, I had to make some tough decisions. First, our golf instructor, though a top PGA professional and fabulous coach, was not a skilled author. He believed passionately in the project, but sometimes heart isn’t enough. After a year of wrestling alongside him and even assigning him a fulltime writer/editor, we still didn’t have a completed script. Even still, we might have kept trying if not for the second problem…

By this time we had developed more sophisticated market testing methods than we’d had when we started the project. The new data indicated strongly that L&M Golf would not sell well through online marketing – the only kind we currently do. We were already way behind, our budget kept ballooning, and we hadn’t even started production yet. The biggest costs still lay ahead, and now the data indicated that we’d be unlikely be recoup them. We were beating a dead horse, and now there wasn’t going to be much of a prize at the finish line anyway.

So given all this, canceling the project should have been a no-brainer. Easy call, right? Not exactly. Our instructor had relocated to Nashville for the project. Various members of our team had already invested months of sweat into it and had become emotionally attached. Some fought back tears at the very suggestion of canceling it. Hearing that months of hard work might be for nothing isn’t easy. We’d invested nearly $100,000 in company resources, and we really wanted it to work. Classic sunk cost fallacy.

And of course there was my pride. Canceling Learn & Master Golf would mean admitting I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Of course, I did cancel the project. Better to be wrong than stupid. In the end, my team didn't argue too much. Their initial disappointment (and mine) was soon accompanied by a certain sense of relief. We could finally focus our attention on projects that were working. And now, thanks to those focused efforts, we have nearly completed Learn & Master Ballroom Dance months earlier than we would have otherwise. And, of course, it's only taken me three months to talk openly about my failure here.

A “never quit, no matter what” mentality is often a sign of strength and courage. Other times it’s arrogance. Don’t sink your team’s ship because you’re too proud to admit you started it off in the wrong direction. Change course.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thriving in Tough Times

A number of people have asked lately how the credit crunch and economic slowdown have effected us at Legacy Learning Systems. The short answer is, we’ve felt the effects, but we’re doing fine. Here’s why.

1. Cash Reserves. I’ve done the build-it-fast-then-crash-and-burn thing. It sucked. Bad. I’ve since realized I’d rather have my company be successful than be successful fast. We have intentionally kept our growth in check and built up cash reserves instead of plowing all profits into pursuing break-neck growth. We certainly haven’t taken on debt to pursue growth. Some might call that overly conservative. Those people have never lived on corn flakes with water.

2. Debt Free. I hear there’s a credit crunch. Good thing we don’t need it. See #1.

3. Privately Held. Although we’re profitable and growing, thanks to the sagging economy we are going to miss my sales projections for this year. Big whoop. Few besides me even knew what those projections were. If we were a publicly traded company, there’d be hell to pay, regardless of our profitability.

4. Ramp-Up. It’s our good fortune to be in ramp-up stage. When you're young and growing fast, an economic slump just means you grow slower. For example, we are now selling fewer copies of Learn & Master Guitar than this time last year, thanks to the economy, but our new product launches have more than made up for it. I can take no credit for this. It was just fortunate timing.

While bad for many, economic slowdowns always benefit someone. Usually, it’s the conservatively run businesses that win in times like these. Regardless of size, un-leveraged companies with cash and no debt are going to win. They’ll hire great talent on the cheap, build their product lines, buy or crush their competitors, and position themselves to win big when the economy turns again.

We hope to be one of them.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Intelligent Hiring for Clueless Managers

I used to have a rule that I wouldn’t hire anyone to do a job I hadn’t first done myself. It was a good rule. It's become more difficult, though, as our company has grown and lately I’ve found myself interviewing candidates for jobs I could never do. Accurately assessing a candidate’s true abilities is difficult enough. It’s even harder when you don’t possess them yourself. Here are a few things that have helped me.

Go to “School”. While you may not be able to fully learn the job itself before filling it, you should still learn as much as possible about the job. Quiz friends and colleagues with experience in that job. Ask them what you should be looking for in strong candidates and what to watch out for. Probe deeply into what they really do every day, and have them help you flesh out exactly what elements of it would be most important to your company’s needs. Solicit their help in writing the job description. And of course, get their recommendations for possible candidates.

Don’t Fake It. When interviewing candidates for jobs you have little or no experience with, don’t pretend that you do. If the candidate uses a term you don’t know, stop them and ask them to define it. Trying to appear smarter than you are will only ensure you remain in ignorance. Be sure they explain exactly what they did day-to-day in each of their previous jobs, and that they do it in language you understand. This will also help you hire a candidate who can speak your language and communicate what they are doing clearly to you. Hiring an “expert” who can’t communicate on your level will only lead to frustration down the road.

Hire Experience. For some positions, it simply makes good economic sense to hire young, energetic candidates that can be easily trained and motivated. This is NOT one of those times. If you need to fill a role that you do not have extensive experience in yourself, hire someone who does. A novice (that’s you) managing a beginner is a recipe for disaster.

Look for “Manageability.” During the interview, and especially when checking references, pay particular attention to how easily the candidate got along with their bosses and management. Watch out for big egos. Dealing with big egos is hard enough with people who think they know more than you. It’s next to impossible when they really do. When going through their work history in the interview, ask the candidate to describe each of their bosses in detail and assess for you both their technical ability and their overall management ability. Pay close attention if the candidate seems to only really respect the bosses who had strong technical ability in their particular field, since you obviously don’t.

Of course, none of this gets you off the hook for learning as many of the job functions in your organization as possible – especially the core functions. There is simply no substitute for first-hand experience. Work the numbers. Work the phones. Work the warehouse. Go on sales calls. Do tech support. Handle service complaints. Yes, hire well, delegate, and empower – but never, ever abdicate your responsibility to know what your people do. Too often “empowerment” is simply code for abandonment.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Introducing Learn & Master Drums

It's official. Learn & Master Drums launched today! We've been working on this course for nearly two years, so we're incredibly excited to be releasing it. We really believe there is no better home training course for learning drums available anywhere at any price.

Thanks so much to Dann Sherrill and the huge team that made this course possible. You have invested countless hours that I pray will ultimately be a blessing to many. I am in your debt. And of course, an advanced apology to the neighbors, roommates, and family members of our future customers... I suggest earplugs!

We have a little tradition around here of honoring our first buyer of each new course. This time, the distinction goes to Alan Peden of Glaskow, U.K. Thanks, Alan!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Legacy Days

One downside to marketing your products online is that you rarely get to meet your customers. That changed for me this weekend when Legacy Learning customers from around the world (seriously) descended upon Nashville, TN for “Legacy Days.” The irony is that we never asked them to come...

It’s fair to say that our customers are fans. They love Learn & Master Guitar in particular. I’ve been asked countless times whether we’d ever plan an event where our students could come to Nashville to meet us, each other, and their beloved guitar instructor, Steve Krenz. My answer was always “someday – not this year.” As usual, I was a bit slow to get it.

Our customers had enough of waiting, so they planned the event themselves. Honest! There was no input or prompting from us. Through our student support discussion board, our customers began talking, planning, and ultimately creating the entire event. They booked hotels, planned activities and even made t-shirts. Invited or not, they were coming. By that point, we’d gotten the message. If our customers wanted to meet us and each other that badly, we’d be ready!

The weekend was a fabulous success. We had guitar workshops, guest speakers, fun events, a charity auction supporting Musico a Musico, and a concert. It was so much fun meeting this eclectic group that makes up our core customer base. What fine folks!

On Saturday, we asked for volunteers for interviews. I wanted to hear their guitar learning stories and we filmed them for promotion and inspiration pieces. Wow! Hearing over and over again how our course had touched their lives was so gratifying. I heard one tell about how he used learning guitar to keep his mind off of the intense pain he was enduring as part of a long recovery from back surgery. An older man talked about how learning to play guitar was the last big goal for his life. Another talked of how it helped during a painful divorce. And on and on. The term "bucket list" came up often. We were impacting lives.

Getting promotional material was easy too. We didn't have to coax anyone into saying how wonderful the course is. Every time our customers talked about it, they simply gushed. On and on about how there’s no better way to learn guitar. There could be no doubt that they genuinely loved our simple course.

The real highlight, though, was the student showcase on Saturday night. One by one, the students got up on stage and performed. It was amateur music at it’s finest. Compared to the professional music you would have heard on any other Nashville stage that night, it was awful. Beautifully, heart-warmingly awful. True beginners who’ve dreamed for years of playing, finally stepping up on a stage for the very first time.

I’ve never applauded so loudly in all my life.

Thank you to all who came and made the weekend so special. YOU get the credit for learning guitar and capturing your dreams. It is our honor to simply have been a part.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Off-Topic Tip: Someone else’s iPod

Borrow someone else’s iPod for your next run or workout. It’s a great way to mix things up. You’ll find yourself picking up the pace to songs and genres that you might never have guessed would move you. And you can always hit skip if Cindi Lauper comes up. Or maybe not...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Google Sent Me a Refrigerator

That's right. Google sent me a refrigerator. It is without a doubt the strangest corporate gift I've ever received. It came with a certificate indicating that my company has generated over one million leads on Google Adwords, and a nice letter acknowleging the milestone.

By one million "leads", of course, they mean one million paid clicks. I know how much each one of those clicks costs me on average, so my first thought was "Whoa! That is a LOT of money!" I already knew how much we're sending Google monthly, but the total over my company's short lifetime came with a bit of sticker shock.

My next thought was, "And all I get is a lousy mini-fridge?"

Don't get me wrong. I do appreciate the gesture, but it's on par with what you'd expect to get when you buy a used car or open a checking account. I've been offered trips to China from companies with whom we spend less.

Then again, we couldn't do what we do without Google. So the other way to look at it is Google did give me a lousy mini-fridge... and my car, and my house, and jobs for my team - even the fancy little office I'm sitting in.

Not a bad return for buying a million clicks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Award Count Grows for L&M Guitar

"Learn & Master Guitar" has just received the AEGIS award for the Training/Education category! The AEGIS awards are one of the video industry's premier competitions for peer recognition of outstanding video productions.

"Learn & Master Guitar" has also previously been awarded two bronze Telly Awards. The Tellies are a bit more prestigious, but let's face it, the folks at AEGIS got it right. No way L&M Guitar was a bronze! :)

Congratulations to Steve Krenz, Nathan Adam and Jared McDaniel on their recognition for a work of true excellence. We now have entire teams doing what those three did almost entirely on their own. Many, many thanks to them for the countless hours invested when all this was little more than a dream!

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Milestone for L&M Piano

It's been about eight months since we released Learn & Master Piano, and we just received a thank-you letter from our first student (that we know of) to complete the entire course.

I love when our customers take the time to write us thank-you letters. We get them all the time for Learn & Master Guitar, and we've been getting them for Piano as well, but this is the first from a Learn & Master Piano graduate. The original is two pages long and it came to Will Barrow, our instructor, the old-fashioned way: through the mail. I've edited it down to the highlights:

Dear Will,
I have just completed Session 28 of your piano course! You have opened my eyes and ears to piano vistas I could not have imagined.

I am 70 years old. I took piano lessons as a child but stopped playing when I went to college. My fingers itched to play, but I had not touched a piano in over 50 years. What to do???

Then I discovered you. And chords, and progressions. What a window on the world of piano music you provide! Classical music has always given me pleasure, but with you, I heard and appreciated for the first time the great styles of popular music: Blues, Ragtime, Stride, Country, Boogie Woogie...

All aspects of the course were professional and first rate. The curriculum design was brilliant! The way you introduced a topic, and led me to perfect a skill was terrific.

Wow! With the base you have provided, I have a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of me (my mother was still alive at 101).

Thank you again. You have immeasurably enhanced my life. Keep playing and teaching!

Sincerely yours,
Jack Laschenski

I love those last two paragraphs. Congratulations to all who worked so hard on this course. You have made a difference in one man's life, and many others. And congratulations to you, Mr. Laschenski. May you enjoy many more years of making great music!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Lights. Camera. Action!

Yesterday we (Legacy Learning Systems) started filming our 4th course, Learn & Master Ballroom Dance. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come since our first production. Our team has grown and our systems have been drastically refined. This is also our first production in our new 4,500 square foot studio. No more filming in cramped living rooms and music studios!

Our instructors, Jaimee Simon and Mark Short, are fantastic. Not only are they incredible dancers, but even more importantly, they really know their stuff when it comes to instruction. They are career instructors and it shows. Frankly, they’re making our job incredibly easy.

The goal is to have the project out in time for Christmas. Ambitious to be sure, but we’re feeling confident.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How to Build a World Class Advisory Team

One of my main goals this year has been to expand my group of mentors and advisors, so they’ve become a bit of a recurring theme on this blog lately. The results have been remarkable. In the last year, I have developed relationships with a variety of business leaders who, frankly, I’m humbled to even be able to get on the phone. Their advice has been invaluable.

A few of you have been on me to share exactly how I’ve gone about getting all these guys on my team, so I’ll do that here. I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way.

Keep in Informal
I have never actually asked anyone to “be my Advisor.” Doing so seems like a major request, especially of someone who doesn’t know me and who’s time is scarce and valuable. Instead, I simply ask for their advice. This is far less intimidating and it gives the relationship room to grow naturally.

Maximize Their Time - The Advisor Summary
There is a secret to finding great advisors, and this is it. Making the most of very small amounts of your advisors’ time will make them LOVE helping you. No one likes to feel like their time is being wasted, and the corollary is equally true. Make it extremely easy for them to give you a lot of assistance with very little time and they will love you for it.

My favorite way to do that is with what I call an “Advisor Summary.” It has been by far the most important tool in building my advisor relationships – a secret weapon of sorts. It’s about eight pages long and looks very much like the Executive Summary of a business plan. Really, that’s what it is. It is formally written and presented. It has sections on “Who We Are” (mission/vision), “Where We Are Now” (personnel, projects, market reach, etc), “Where We Are Going” (expansion plans, 3-5 year picture), and “Key Challenges and Opportunities.” In case they don’t have time to read all of it, each section also has a two or three sentence “super-summary.”

Of course, they do read all of it. In fact, they eat it up! After reading it, most offer to get together to discuss and then spend a great deal of time giving me specific input on my plans, usually over a long meal. Collectively, their input has been the best education I’ve ever had. It’s fabulous.

I believe the reason these men have responded this way is because so few people who ask their advice put nearly as much time and effort into maximizing the value of their time. Doing so makes it very easy for them to offer real help.

Keep in mind that not everyone will be so anxious to help. Some (in my experience, about half) will not respond at all. When it happens, don’t waste a single moment worrying about it.

Obviously, an Advisor Summary could take many forms. Mine works well in the business world, but variations could also be used by pastors seeking counsel on growing their churches, missionaries on their ministries, and corporate employees on their departments, major projects or even their careers in general. The point is if you want the advice of very busy people, honor their time by making it as easy as possible for them to help you.

Preparing a really good Advisor Summary will take a great deal of your time. It certainly did for me. Once you have one, though, revising and updating it becomes relatively simple. Preparing it is also a very useful exercise in and of itself. Trying to boil down everything you know about your company and what it’s facing into a few short pages will force you to get very clear about what the real issues are.

Ask Specific Questions
This goes back to maximizing your advisors’ time and impact. Don’t just tell them about your business, career, or ministry and ask for their general advice. They’ll give that anyway. Instead, give some serious thought to what is giving you the most trouble. Then ask very specific questions.

At the end of my Advisor Summary, I always attach five or six “Key Questions” written specifically for that advisor. They are always direct, practical, and relevant to the real issues I am facing at that moment. I describe specific problems and request specific answers. I usually get them.

Be aware that people will often judge your intelligence by the quality of the questions you ask – and rightly so.

No Handholding
Your advisors are there to give periodic input on the major issues you face, not hold your hand through every step of the process. Don’t expect them to meet with you every week or even every month. The longest and most treasured mentor relationship I have is with someone I meet with only a few times a year. Meeting that infrequently forces me to get clear about the real issues I’ve been facing, rather than wasting his time discussing that week’s crisis-of-the-moment.

Seek Appropriate Advisors
Most of my advisors are extremely successful business leaders who head companies much larger than mine. Most lead businesses that have some similarities to my own. All of them are men I respect. These things are key. And while you do want advisors who are ahead of you, keep it within reason. If you are just starting a very small business, seeking counsel from the heads of major corporations might not be the best use of your time or theirs.

Give Back
You will never be able to fully repay your best advisors for the value of their time and assistance. Try anyway. Give back as much as you can. This generally doesn’t mean financially, but give your advisor as many expressions of gratitude and honor as you can. Use their advice wherever appropriate and be sure to tell them when it works. Look for ways to bless them, their families, and their staff.

I also try to understand my advisors’ lives and businesses as much as possible and, in time, I do offer my own advice when appropriate. Whether it’s actually helpful to them is another matter, but it shows them I care and it generally seems to be appreciated.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I make it a point to pray for each of my advisors. I ask the Lord specifically to bless them for blessing me, and I believe that He does. Few business leaders have anyone praying specifically for their success. That’s tragic.

Friday, July 18, 2008

It's the Product, Stupid!

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to meet with Mike Hyatt, the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson. I’ve mentioned him here before and I’ve been reading his blog off and on for a few years now, so it was a treat to finally meet him in person.

While telling him about the launch of Learn & Master Guitar, Mike stopped me when I described how quickly things ramped up during our first year. He wanted to know “what was the hardest part about getting the word out?” I thought about it for a bit before admitting that, honestly, it seemed pretty easy. I had already spent five years marketing a similar product at another company, so the marketing strategy was no great mystery to me.

The hard part, I told him, was developing the product. It took a large investment and nine months of incredibly difficult work (thank you Steve Krenz!), but when we finally launched, people wanted it. They wanted it because it really was like no other home-study guitar course available. And since it was internet based, word spread fast.

Mike gave a knowing smile and picked up a bright yellow button that had been sitting on the coffee table between us. In big black letters it read, “It’s the Product, Stupid!” I laughed. Apparently, “It’s the Product, Stupid!” is a mantra Mike has been preaching to his team at Thomas Nelson. As he put it, “when the product is right, everything else is easy.”

I am a marketing guy. I like to believe that the right sales copy and marketing strategy can sell anything. Often it can (for a while), but if the product is lousy, it's definitely an uphill battle.

Marketing is about getting people to want what you have to offer. Offer what they already want and marketing gets very, very easy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Disagreement in a Multitude of Counselors

Over the past few months, I've been focused on expanding my advisory team and, more recently, getting their input on our company's expansion plan. The extent to which these highly successful and very busy men have been willing to guide me has been both humbling and honoring. Now that we're past the initial getting-to-know-you stuff and on to the real advising, however, there is a new challenge. They don't give the same advice.

On some issues, of course, they all agree. In fact, I now have some very clear next steps based on counsel they've given commonly. It's great when that happens! Unfortunately, there are at least as many issues where they disagree, often strongly. I'm not talking about issues that are vague or general, either. I mean very specific issues, such as org charts, proper compensation structures for management, and when (or whether) to raise capital. These are important decisions I need to get right, and very intelligent men are giving me very different answers. That's good thing.

Proverbs 11:14 says that "there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors." (My paraphrase.) Although it's not clearly stated, the inference here is that your counselors will not agree. Otherwise, what would be the point in getting a multitude? If they all said the same thing, one counselor would do.

My job now is to sift through the advice and choose what is best for my company. That's why we don't lead by committee. Nothing would get done. I know, however, that I am far better equipped to make wise decisions having heard from the "multitude" -- even on issues where they've disagreed.

The other (and perhaps more important) reason for me to have a "multitude of couselors" is that, frankly, sometimes it takes more than one person to convince me I am wrong. (Can you believe it?) This has happened a LOT lately. In fact, it's been more common for my advisors to disagree collectively with me than to disagree with each other. When they do, I pay close attention!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Seek and Obey

It’s been a day now since I’ve returned from the “Spiritual Fathers” project (see previous post) and I have finally given up on processing all that I took in. There was just too much. Instead, I’ve tried to boil down all that I learned to a few key action items – one or two things I learned that are most essential for me to act on now.

What I settled on were two things that actually stemmed from the same question. At one point, the Spiritual Fathers were asked “what spiritual discipline has been the most critical in your life?”

Constant Prayer: All of the men had this answer in common. To my surprise, they did not emphasize blocking out huge portions of time each day for dedicated prayer. In fact, they avoided saying specifically how much time they spent praying each day for fear we might benchmark against them and become legalistic about it. Instead, they all talked about cultivating a life of near constant prayer; constantly praying throughout the day. Having time each day dedicated to prayer is important, but they had all moved beyond that to a point where they were also praying intermittently throughout the day about every situation they faced. Paul, of course, describes this 1 Thessalonians 5 where he says to “pray without ceasing.” These men actually do.

Instant Obedience: This one came from Jack Hayford. He said that one of the most important disciplines he focused on was seeking to respond instantly to instruction or correction from the Holy Spirit. In other words, instant obedience. I felt immediately convicted about this. I often like to say things like “God is working on me on that” when what I really mean is that “I know what I’m supposed to do (or not do) and I’m not obeying – yet.” Delayed obedience, of course, is not much different than disobedience.

I realized, too, that the two are closely related. I can always tell when I’m not walking in total obedience to the Holy Spirit because my prayer life suffers. I avoid spending too much time in prayer because I know what the Lord is going to tell me, and I don’t want to hear it. And it doesn’t matter what I want to pray about, I know that the Lord will immediately shift the “conversation” to the area where I am not doing what I know to do, so I pray less. A lot less.

This is my resolution, to renew my pursuit of constant prayerfulness, and to strive for immediate obedience to Lord’s instruction and correction (including the area I’ve been fighting him on lately). To seek and obey.

The men on this panel have accomplished truly incredible things in their lifetime. Building some of the world’s most successful ministries while remaining respected and scandal-free is no small feat, especially considering the temptations and constant public examination that come with it. It’s considerably more difficult (and rare) than accomplishing the same in the business world. If the “secret to success” these men share is simply cultivating a lifestyle of constant seeking and obeying, imagine what is possible when Christian businessmen and women consistently live by the same mantra. If we truly see our calling in the business world as ministry (and it is) then we must.

Seek and obey. Simply and consistently. Not just daily, but throughout the day. Cultivated as a lifestyle, it just might change the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Historic Event

Have you ever participated in an event and knew that somehow it was a MUCH bigger deal than you could fully appreciate at the moment? That it was much more important than your own little brain could fully understand? I've had that feeling since the moment I arrived here at The Cove in Ashville, NC for the taping of "A Fireside Chat with Fathers of the Faith."

As you've probably gathered from this blog, I am a big believer in learning all that I can from those who have gone ahead of me. This week I have a unique opportunity to do that from several true patriarchs of the faith -- internationally recognized authors, speakers, and founders of major Christian ministries and movements. Most of them are in their seventies and eighties. They have lived lives that have had a profound impact on the Kingdom. To have the opportunity to meet even one of them would be a tremendous privilege. This week they have all been brought together (a huge feat itself, given their schedules) for a "fireside chat". For three days, they are passing along their wisdom for the next generations of leadership. They are:

Jack Hayford – pastor, teacher, author and currently the President of the Foursquare Church as well as the Founder/Chancellor of King’s College and Seminary.
Loren Cunningham – ‘the world’s most traveled man’ is the Founder of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) as well as an author, and the Founder/President of the University of the Nations.
Lloyd Ogilvie – pastor, preacher, author, 61st Chaplain of the United States Senate and named one the ‘twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world’.
John Perkins – an international leader, teacher and author on issues of racial reconciliation and community development, awarded seven honorary doctorates.
Winkie Pratney – a New Zealand author, Christian apologist, authority on revival, and a young adult communicator who speaks worldwide to 500,000 annually.
Dr. Robert Schuler - an often misunderstood patriarch of the faith; founder of the Chrystal Cathedral, world's first seeker-sensitive church; best known for his widely viewed "Hour of Power" television program
Henry Blackaby - (to be taped at a later date) author the best-selling and profoundly impactful book, "Experiencing God".

These are some of the real "grandpas" of the faith for this generation. Last night I listened in as they sat around the Billy Graham's fireplace and shared their answers to questions like these: "What has been the most important spiritual discipline you've cultivated over your lifetime?" "How have you tended the integrity of your heart when others have criticized or wronged you?" "How have you balanced family life with your calling?" And of course, many others. Hearing them share unscripted from their hearts has been an incredibly powerful experience. I can't believe I get to sit in on two more days of it!

I am sure I'll write more on this as I have time, but you can learn a little by visiting The project was devised by Dave Beuhring and is being produced by Lionshare Leadership. You won't find much information publicly available on it, since its completion and launch is still quite a ways off, but let me tell you now... You will want to get these DVDs!

The project is still in need of some more donors to be seen through to completion, so do consider joining with me in supporting a vitally important project for the next generation of Christian leaders. If you would like to help, please let me know.

More on this soon!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Categories of Business Thought

I try to learn all that I can from people who understand business better than I do. As I’ve done that, I’ve begun to see that there are very distinctive categories of business thought. While the top players in these categories all know their stuff, they really do not speak the same language. If you’re seeking counsel from guys like this, it’s important to understand the framework they think in and how it may or may not apply to yours. The three categories of business thought I’ve come to recognize are Corporate, Corporate Entrepreneur, and Bootstrap Entrepreneur.

Corporate: Some of my primary exposure to the world of corporate thought has been through the Executive MBA at Vanderbilt University. The guys at the top of the corporate world are playing a sport I know little about. They deal with leadership on a very high level and tend to think and talk in broad concepts. The best of them are visionaries, but they really do not – and probably should not – think much like I do.

Role Models: Mike Hyatt, (CEO, Thomas Nelson) and Marty Dickens (former President, BellSouth/AT&T) are both fine local role models in this camp. They are effective leaders whose impact extends beyond their companies. They’re also fine Christian men who exemplify Kingdom mindset. Inspiring and leading well enough to steer massive bureaucracy takes serious clarity and strength of mind. I have a lot to learn from them. However, although I deeply admire them, I do not aspire to be them. In many ways, their lives are not their own.

Corporate Entrepreneurs: This category of business thought is a blend of Corporate and Entrepreneur, but it is absolutely its own category. The guys who operate here really do have their own way of thinking about business. If you sit in on a board meeting or brainstorming session with them, they speak and operate in very corporate ways, but they think and act as entrepreneurs. While they might never try to bootstrap a business off of a few hundred dollars, they are highly effective at raising large sums of money, quickly turning it into a fast-growth enterprise, and then selling it at handsome multiple a few years down the road. These men and women are the favorites of venture capitalists.

I like these guys. I am learning a LOT from them. They think like entrepreneurs in a lot of ways, but they are very effective at putting structure to their enterprises. They are big on planning and do it well. They take the best of the corporate world and apply it to the entrepreneurial mindset.

Role Models: I am building relationships with as many of these folks as I can. I cannot name them all here, but Dan Hammond (President, American Hometown Publishing) and Michael Burcham (President, ParadigmHealth) have both taught me a lot recently.

Bootstrap Entrepreneurs: This is business thought in its most basic, primal format. The guys who excel here have generally built their companies from the ground up, often with little formal business training, investment, or outside help. If you were to tell them “it takes money to make money,” they just might laugh. I could write all day about this mindset, because it’s closest to my own. I learn quickly and easily from those who are ahead of me here, because I already think and speak much like they do.

Role Models: Having an Bootstrap mindset does not mean thinking small. Many of these folks are wildly successful. Dave Ramsey is one of my current favorites. His company’s numbers are not public, but they do have over 200 employees and they’re growing fast (debt free, of course). Their company is extremely well run. I know a number of his employees and I’ve learned a lot from them. Dave’s “EntreLeadership” course is a fantastic study on effective management techniques for those with this mindset. I’ve also learned a lot from Robert D. Smith, Lighting Crown Publishers. He runs a massively successful organization out of the basement of his (albeit quite large) home. The level of leadership and efficiency that bounce around between those walls is mind boggling.

The Point: Your own business mindset has probably been formed largely by the career experiences you’ve had so far. Whether you’ve worked primarily in large corporations, in the fast-paced world of venture capital startups, or in the boot-strapper’s world of small business, your work experience has shaped how you see both business and opportunity.

So who should you learn from? In the early stages of your career, I think it best to learn from those who are already excelling in your business category. A recent college grad in a Fortune 500 company, for example, could learn a lot more from successful people in his own organization than from boot-strappers like me – at least more that would be useful in the early stages of his career. However, the more successful you become, the more you will have to gain by studying the ideas and techniques of those outside of your category. They can bring fresh insight, new ideas, and perhaps the inspiration you need to shake things up. In other words, wherever you’re playing ball, learn the rules of that game first – then do all you can to broaden your perspective.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Forgiveness matters

I had breakfast this morning with a man who's face has haunted me for the past few years, though I barely know him. He had played a small role in a deep betrayal years ago related to another business. He wasn't responsible for it, but because he had a played a role, and because I didn't know him well, it was easy for me to cast him as the villain in my mind. Blaming him also made it easier to forgive the others involved... those I knew, loved, and wanted to forgive.

I hadn't planned to ever confront him about what he'd done. What would be the point? I don't see him, interact with him, or really even know him. Our business together is through and we don't share the same friends. It's all in the past, so why go digging it up again? Right?

That changed when I recently discovered that we now attend the same church. I was polite and greeted him cheerfully when I saw him, but inside I recoiled. I felt genuine distaste for him, and acting as though I felt otherwise made me feel slimy, dirty, awful.

I put it off for a few weeks, but my conscience wouldn't let it go. He is my brother in Christ, we attend the same church, and like it or not, I needed to go to him and lay it all out, "Mathew 18" style. Even as I prayed about it this morning before I went, I told the Lord I didn't think it would do much good.

I was quite wrong. It did do some good. It did a lot of good. To my surprise, the man was deeply and genuinely remorseful. I even felt badly for him. He'd been carrying around the guilt and it clearly weighed on him. Almost immediately, I found that I couldn't wait to forgive him -- and to seek his forgiveness for my waiting so long to go to him. Hearing his story also gave me a different perspective on the position he'd been in at the time.

I left feeling... knowing that chapter in my life was finally closed. At last.

Don't think for a moment that because it's "business" that it's not personal. It's all personal. And it's all spiritual. This is Kingdom work we're doing and Kingdom rules apply. That includes Mathew 18.

Monday, May 26, 2008

One Good Idea

Yesterday I had a pool party. These are always fun for a variety of reasons. One of the smaller ones is seeing the reaction of those who are seeing my home for the first time. ("Dream House" would be a fair description.)

One such person asked how on earth I'd become so successful. Before I could respond with something about the Lord's blessing, another friend interrupted and answered for me...

"He had a really good idea."

Pretty succinct. I smiled politely because it was the only thing to do. After all, it is what most people think, isn't it?

What I wanted to say was that I've had thousands of "good" ideas (haven't we all?); pursued hundreds of them on some level; poured my heart, soul, money, energy, and even years of my life into at least ten of them; and THEN discovered a few that have indeed brought success. Incredibly, the success has also been wildly disproportionate to both the quality of the idea and the amount of work I've put in, and that can be accounted to nothing but the blessing of the Lord.

It's easier, of course, to think that all it takes is "one good idea." Frankly, I'm not that smart.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Payoff from Dropping Business School

Last fall I started the Executive MBA program at Vanderbilt University. I quit at the end of the first semester. Had I continued, I would now be finishing my second semester and would be halfway done with earning my MBA. Here are the things that happened as a direct result of not being in school this semester.

1. I trained for and ran a full marathon – 26.2 miles in 4:10.
2. I lost the fifteen pounds I gained while in school, plus five more.
3. I learned to snowboard and discovered that I LOVE it!
4. I became actively involved at a new church and began developing several meaningful friendships there.
5. I attended my first Tony Robbins seminar. It dramatically impacted both my personal life and how I run my company.
6. I tripled the size of my advisory team.
7. I walked through fire.
8. I read ten new books relevant to business and leadership, a few of which have had a profound impact on my effectiveness.
9. I spent a week mountain biking in Moab, Utah.
10. I helped a friend change the direction of his life.
11. I dropped everything for a week to assist a family member during a time of crisis.
12. I started this blog.

There was plenty more that happened during these last five months, but those twelve items are all things that I can say absolutely would not have happened had I been in school.

At the time, the decision to quit Vanderbilt was one of the most difficult of my life. I agonized over it for months. For some of us, quitting is really hard. Frankly, it should be. Sometimes, though, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

None of the above was why I quit – at least not directly. I may write about my reasons more in another post, but it did seem that I was paying a huge time cost for what was a small amount of useful knowledge (for me). In that sense, I suppose the list above was the reason. I knew I would be missing out on a lot of life by spending my days in classes that I didn’t find useful. If I’d realized just how much life I’d be missing, the decision would have been a lot easier.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Jack Daniels and Legacy Learning

On a whim, and mostly because I needed an excuse to take a long motorcycle ride, I followed the back roads from Nashville out to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a tour of the Jack Daniels distillery. I had no idea what I was in for. I’ve never been much of a whisky man, but what I saw on that tour was truly inspiring. I can learn a lot about my own company from ol’ Jack.

Forgive me if I sound a bit like a whisky commercial for a minute here, but a little background is necessary. The Jack Daniels distillery still operates in the same idilic backwoods setting that it did when it was founded in 1866. Despite being the number one selling whisky in the world, not much has changed in the way it’s made, and our tour guide, a hillbilly whisky man if there ever was one and quite a character, walked us through the whole process. The grains are all harvested locally. So is the sweet maple birch that is burned one small brick at a time to make the charcoal used in the distilling process. Jack Daniels is one of only two distilleries that makes their own charcoal, and they do it exactly as they did over a hundred years ago. They also make their own barrels – by hand – and they are the only distillery to do so. The entire process is remarkably old school, despite the fact that they produce more bottles per day than any other brand in the world.

The company's commitment to doing things the old way (and the slow way) was incredible. What was truly remarkable, however, was the passion that goes into it. The people who work there LOVE Jack Daniels, and they are incredibly proud both of its history and its commitment to quality. The passion they have for it is contagious. I couldn’t care less about whisky, but I left knowing that from that day forward, no other brand would be served in my house. Jack Daniels has many fanatical customers who love Jack Daniels whisky because they can taste the quality, time, and pride that go into it. My palate isn’t that sophisticated, but I’ve seen the quality, time, and pride that go into it, and I won’t serve anything else again.

As I walked from whisky building to whisky building, I couldn’t help but think about my own company. If Jack Daniels and his successors could build that much passion into something as insignificant (and harmful) as whisky, how much more should I be building into my company – a company that purports to help people reach their personal dreams. What will people say about that company 100 years from now? Will it even exist? And if it does, will my passion for what we do still pulse through its veins?

I only have one life. I don’t want to waste one day of it chasing a quick buck or building things that are fleeting. After I die, I won’t much care whether people flock to my statue to have their picture taken, as I saw them do at Jack Daniels’ monument. I honestly don't care if they even remember my name. But I do care whether the work I do will stand the test of time; whether it will be good enough to still be helping people reach their dreams long after I’ve passed on.

To do so, of course, requires a standard of excellence that few have the stomach for. It’s not enough to build products that “satisfy” your customers or earn you two-thumbs up from reviewers. It’s not enough to do what’s expected of a professional organization. Building things that will stand the test of time requires a passion for excellence that goes far beyond what’s necessary.

Legacy Learning Systems helps people reach their personal dreams. The dreams they'd almost given up on. The things they’ve always wanted to learn, but never thought they’d get around to. That matters. Doing it passionately enough for it to last for generations matters even more.

What our company creates matters a whole lot more than whisky, so if Jack can do it, so will we. It will be our Legacy.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why this blog?

Those of you who are acquaintances may be wondering why on earth I would want to add blogging to my list of things to do. Those who know me well won't wonder at all.

As with most things in my life, I hope to share and inspire. Whether anyone cares to listen is another story, but the process itself is good for me. What's more, I hope this blog will resonate with those I work with, both in "real world" work with my company and in "Kingdom work" with my church, friends, and others. I hope they will find inspiration and perhaps a few pearls of wisdom here. I expect to find a few of my own through the process.