Bill Howard, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Prudhomme and Your Business

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Bill Howard is my father.  He was a history major in college.  Don’t even ask him a simple question about the civil war unless you’ve blocked out at least 10 solid minutes for a response – most of which is delivered with his eyes closed because as my mother says, he’s reading it off of the back of his eyelids.  I, on the other hand could never remember dates, names, or significant events.   I was always painfully bored in my own history classes.  But lately, I’ve been pondering the importance of studying history, especially as our economy vacillates between recession and recovery.  Where do we go for a better answer?

Last week, I was lucky enough to come across copy of Leonard Bernstein’s,Findings.  I was particularly struck by an essay he wrote called, An Old Fashion Artist.  This was a speech given in 1961 to honor Lillian Hellman at The Brandeis Creative Arts Awards.  Here’s an excerpt:

Today, more than ever, the talk in art circles is about the newest, the latest, the way-outest, the beatest, the sickest, the cliquiest – all of which to say the most dated.  Nothing dates so fast as exteriorized experiments, or willful shock of the bourgeoisie.  Don’t misunderstand me:  I am all for shocking the bourgeois of the world, for stirring up discussion and provoking controversy; but not when it becomes a primary artistic goal.  Such goals float away in a half decade, down a brackish river; and the moment we take artistic stock – even with the tiny perspective we have about our own century- we find that all durable hard has been made by old fashioned artists.  

Bernstein also goes on to describe an old fashion artist as one who is, “An extender of tradition, acutely aware of roots and lineage, who extends these by measuring them incessantly against the future; therefore, of course, an insatiable progressive.”  

Fifty-five years later, we as a society, are still obsessed with the latest, greatest, youngest, hippest especially when it comes to business and entrepreneurship.  Just yesterday, Entrepreneur Magazine wrote an articlehighlighting a shift in the recent artisan entrepreneur wave and the challenge of the transition from product to vision.    And the author corroborates that which Bernstein warned us about 55 years ago: those businesses that were out to be the latest have floated away in half a decade.  This also reminded me of one of the best and most simple pieces of advice Bill Howard gave me when I started working in business and was thinking about consulting:  Never be a fad.

So how can you ensure your creative venture wont be out in half a decade?  Well the answer was further illuminated when I stumbled upon Saltie’s new blog called, The Gam.    I was most moved by the motivation that Caroline had for creating this space:  as an homage to those who have come before us. An education for some, a reminder for others and an opportunity for all to learn and think again about the culinary heroes of the 20th century.  Just as Bernstein emphasized, the importance of history.  What I like about their first entry, dedicated to Paul Prudhomme, is that the author, Eva, identifies a key reason Prudhomme became a cook:

“Prudhomme learned to cook because he had to – he was one of thirteen children living on a sharecrop farm that produced sweet potatoes and cotton. He inherited the duty of helping his mother cook at age seven, using ingredients he and his family foraged, grew, and slaughtered themselves. Prudhomme’s appreciation of the importance of fresh produce and knowing how your food got to be in your kitchen came way before the term “farm to table” was invented.”

“Prudhomme eventually settled back from whence he came, the calling of the food of his youth perhaps too strong to be apart from for too long. He couldn’t help cooking the food he loved, it turned out, and realized that he had a strength and appreciation that others wanted to learn about.”

Paul Prudhoome had purpose and he had a vision; two of the most important, yet underdeveloped core pieces of a business.   He didn’t look at the market and determine how he could fit in.  He, instead, identified his deepest motivations and found a way to create a space for himself in the marketplace.  This is why he had longevity.   He may not have used words like purpose and vision in his own business, because they came forth from him so naturally.  For many of us, we need to stop and make sure we too are creating from a bigger vision and not just selling a product – the trap most creative small business fall into in this economy.

When I teach business growth, I always stress that the most successful business is a marriage between your vision and customer demand.  The key there is identifying your vision first and then understanding how to meet in the middle.  What we never want to do – if we want to live beyond 5 years – is look at the market first and fill a need.  That’s an outdated way of working that doesn’t fit in this economy. The thing we must understand is no one actually “needs” our products, but we can create a vision they’ll want to continue to experience for many years.

As one of my students at Industry City recently said, we’re done innovating for innovations sake.  It’s passed, we’re no longer shocked, we need something else.  And if we have any sense about us, we will step back and learn from those before us.  Those who warned us 55 years ago that fads don’t last.  Those who set the right example and created from a deeper purpose than being the latest or greatest.  Even if we’ve jumped into the economy without thinking about it, we can still step back, redefine our purpose, redefine our values and set a long-term vision that will ensure our own creative business won’t float away down a brackish river too.

Life, Liberty, and the Distraction of Shiny Objects

Posted by & filed under Leadership, Reflections.

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I’m headed to Minnesota for the holiday next week and if I’m lucky, there will be another baby raccoon to hang out with at the lake.  I love raccoons. They’re a funny species and what’s most fascinating is watching their attraction to shiny objects.  Be it a quarter or a faucet, if it shines, they’re drawn to it like it’s the missing piece of their soul. If they could speak, I’m certain they’d be proclaiming like Tom cruise to Rene Zellweger in Jerry Maguire:  You complete me.  Until it doesn’t and they toss it aside for a soda can.  Because that’s how the shiny object cycle works.  What’s flashy must always fade.  It’s not permanent.

It’s the same way I feel we’re approaching business growth.  We’re drawn to shiny solutions: a listicle of the 5 ways to improve your leadership today, the biggest mistake you’re making in team building corrected in a 26 second read, or 5 quick social media tips for explosive growth.

This will fix us!  Until it doesn’t.

I loathe short cuts and that’s often what these solutions are promising.  On the flip side of that, I also loathe martyrdom in business.  Don’t think that working more is the solution.

We’re in a dramatically shifting economy and it’s demanding you rethink how you’re approaching business growth and the solutions you’re seeking to grow your business.

And the truth is, the process isn’t shiny.  In fact, at times it’s an ugly confrontation and a painfully hard change of direction.   But why are ugly and painful considered things to be avoided?  Only when we are challenged do we truly grow.

If you’re growing a business in Brooklyn, in this saturated market, where your landlord is raising your rent beyond your ability to grow in tandem, you might feel driven to find the fastest solution to grow.   You’re under tremendous pressure.  I guarantee you it’s not the solution you need for longevity (whether that’s 5 years or 20 years and beyond).  I praise the owners who are willing to look at how they’re showing up in the business and realizing that real growth comes from adjusting at your core, not from adding quick tips on top of a shaky foundation.

So why are we distracted by these shiny solutions?  Because we don’t have to actually face what’s not working.  We can apply bandaid after bandaid without looking at ourselves and how we’re leading – and most likely not leading our business growth.  And experts often won’t take you there because it’s a super uncomfortable place to work from.

Do you relate to any of these:

I use the day to day fires to rationalize why I don’t have time to work on a long-term plan.

Sales have slowed, cashflow is tight, and at times I just want to shut it down.

I went into business with a partner who doesn’t share my vision, but I’m hoping that will sort itself out.

My employees underwhelm me often.

I know I should be building more relationships to grow my business, but I’m focusing on hashtags.

I feel more comfortable in the trenches with the team than owning my role as the leader.

These types of problems aren’t solvable from a listicle or a quick tip.  They are problems at the core of how you define and operate your business.

So this 4th of July holiday, as you’re gazing into the sky, watching the fireworks flash and fade, ask yourself these questions:

Am I just trying to put out fires within my business or am I seriously confronting the core of what’s not working in my business?

Do I even know what that core of my business is?

Am I even focused on longevity or am I distracted by the day to day?

Have I shifted my leadership with this shifting demands of this new economy?

I’m currently teaching my business growth program at Industry City, one of the largest hubs of creative entrepreneurs in NYC.   I’m privileged to see first hand and facilitate the professional soul searching that most of these businesses face—even after they’ve been operating for a decade—in order to stay relevant in the economy, to stay inspired within their business and to stay operating effectively with the demands of employees and rising costs.

How are you approaching your business growth?  If you’re interested in the next session of my 12 week business growth program, drop me a line and I’ll keep you in the loop for the launch.

Reflections on the Innovation Economy: Traditions

Posted by & filed under Leadership, Reflections.

Every time I sit at the ballet, I think about business.  Maybe it’s because my earliest careers were in the arts:  ballet and classical music.  There’s a discipline required when you devote yourself to the high arts.  That discipline is the the exchange you make to be part of something much bigger and much deeper than yourself – a tradition.  It’s an exchange you make to partake in an experience that fosters constant growth and discovery about yourself and the world around you.  It’s an exchange you make to partake in an experience that fosters a deeper connection to those with you and those who came before you.  And it’s an exchange you make to know that your contributions matter.  That’s what traditions offer.   It’s a rich experience.

I have written about culture and the symphony before.  But as I sat through Swan Lake last night, even as an audience member instead of a performer, I felt myself as part of something bigger and deeper.  I was moved to sit on the edge of my seat and leap with applause when Isabella Boylston finished her flawless fouettes as Odile.  As a passive participant, I still felt part of that connection, part of that tradition.  I felt gratitude that Isabella had devoted herself to something much bigger and taken a moment to share it with me.  I felt gratitude that through the act of commerce, I could still have that same experience of being part of the tradition.  It motivates me to continue to invest.      

Even though I’m deeply steeped in the innovation economy and feel an enormous responsibility to growing it, at times I fear it.  I fear the messaging we send about innovating, disrupting, hacking, on trend etc, etc, etc.  None of those terms turn me on.  None of them move me because I know 5 or 10 years from now, we’ll be over them.  They are – like the products they produce – disposable. 

But there’s also a different side of the innovation economy emerging, one focused on establishing traditions even if they are young at this point.  They are businesses that are taking valuable tools like technology and combining them with the motivators of the past.  These businesses deliver an experience not just a product.  That experience is the result of being part of a tradition:  the entrepreneur passing on their beliefs – purpose and values – to their company and their customers.   Traditions driving innovation.  I can hear Alanis Morissette:  isn’t it ironic?  

I feel hopeful when I work with these types of businesses.  They know it’s not about the cupcakes, it’s about what that cupcake delivers.  They recognize that by rooting their businesses in their values, they’re creating an experience that no one else can copy.  They recognize that their innovative product will lose its cultural relevance if it’s not backed by a tradition.   They recognize that their vulnerability shown by sharing those values and that purpose creates a desire from their company and customers to in turn be a part of that tradition.  

Do we need more disruption or just more vulnerability from our entrepreneurs?  That’s certainly not a path most entrepreneurs are willing to take. 

Do more businesses mean a better economy? Or could we focus on building more deeply rooted, firmly established businesses?  Ones that drive innovation, but don’t become irrelevant.  

I fear we’re sending the wrong message, that everyone can be an entrepreneur and that everyone should be an innovator.  We constantly read that  what will bring us back and keep us on top is more innovation.  More, more, more.  I fear it’s a fantasy driven again by flashy headlines to produce more clicks.  I don’t think we need more per se unless we have depth.  We need innovation that will create a  lasting impact through traditions.  

Finding Self Through Entrepreneurship: An Unexpected Journey

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We don’t typically start our business in hopes that we gain a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals. Nothing we’re taught about business indicates that one of the most potent paths to self actualization is entrepreneurship. And often when we stumble, we’re quick to look for solutions in terms of marketing plans, financial projections, and setting goals.

Now, those things are most certainly mandatory for building a thriving business, but what lies beneath them, at the core of their creation, is a face-off between our current self and our most actualized self.

Continue reading on Medium.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BILLY JOEL

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2015-02-18 21.30.21Last week, I was lucky enough to be treated to some pretty stellar seats to see Billy Joel play at Madison Square Garden.  I wouldn’t identify myself as a diehard Billy Joel fan.  As a student at Berklee College of Music, I was required to study him, and as a former professional dancer, I followed his partnership with Twlya Tharp closely when they created Movin’ Out. 

I was excited to see someone who already influenced my life, but I wasn’t aware of how impactful the experience might be.  Sure I can get down with The Piano Man, but what Billy Joel delivered was beyond my expectations. 

I would describe the experience as transcendent, and I found myself trying to understand why that was.  What I realized was that Billy Joel had much to teach entrepreneurs about how to run a successful business and leave a lasting legacy. 

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU – Marketing and vision

Nothing was more clear in that show than the fact that Billy realizes it’s not about him.  Most popular musicians – and entrepreneurs – have this perspective flipped.  Yes, you have to put yourself into your business to get it off the ground.  It’s your vision and your values that drive the creation of the business.  But, once you put it out into the world, it no longer belongs to you.  The best business is always a marriage between your vision and the customer demand.  When you stop listening to your customers, you stop growing.  I’m pretty sure the last thing Billy Joel wants to do is sing Uptown Girl for like the millionth time. (I’m fully speculating here.)  But he did, because he knows his market, and he knows what they need from him.   They pay him for his services because they need to hear UptownGirl. 

SHOW UP FOR YOUR J-O-B  – Leadership

To build off the Uptown Girl performance, not only did Billy Joel deliver what his audience wanted, but he did so without any hint of resentment or attitude.  He was present and engaged.  How many of us can say that we show up to our jobs, especially the parts we’re not thrilled about, with that orientation.  I know I struggle with it.  We all have things we’re not crazy about doing, but the best entrepreneurs rise above this and get the job done. 

PROFESSIONALISM AND JOY ARE INFECTOUS – CULTURE

The last piece, and probably the most important piece, was that every musician that played with Billy shared his enthusiasm and joy for the performance.  In business, we call that the culture.  The team showed up with the same attitude and delivered the same experience.  It’s an important part in your business to realize the culture you create has more of an impact than the actual product you deliver.  As entrepreneurs, we are far too product focused.  Once we know we can deliver a good product, we need to commit to driving the experience around that product.  That’s culture.   

Whether you consider yourself a Billy Joel fan or not, the point is that there’s much to learn from anyone who performs as their best self and achieves such an admirable level of success.  We all go into business because we believe that what we have to offer is valuable.  But, if we aren’t quick to realize that we should be in service of our customer’s demands and create an experience around our product, we won’t see longevity or realize the full value of what it is we have to offer.

Thank you so much for reading and being part of the Ask Holly How community.  Keep doing your best and together we can change our communities, one small business at a time. 

Wishing you lots of success!