In the consulting and coaching business, unless you’re going to scale it by hiring hundreds of employees, there isn’t this fear that the marketplace grabs this idea that you have and you start printing cash. That’s what happened with the two businesses Tom Asacker was in. Tom is an educator, business advisor, and internationally published author. He says people started to lose their vision of why they were in business in the first place. Their focus was all on the numbers and metrics that they forget to continue honing their own craft and looking at ways that they can innovate and deliver more value to their clients. Tom wrote a book that he self-published about a business guy who’s lost his way, his work, and his passion. Serendipitously, he meets this little girl and, through her eyes, rediscovers his creativity and passion. He shares how self-publishing led to his success in the consulting business. He also paints the picture of how he got his first few clients as he shares his experiences and great ideas.
I’m excited to have Tom Asacker joining us. Tom, welcome.
Michael, it’s great to be here.
For those who don’t know you, take a moment and explain what you do.
I do a lot of different things. I’m an author and an independent brand strategy advisor. I’m working on a philosophy of life. That’s been my task for the last few years, which I hope to launch in January 2019. I stay pretty busy.
Many of our audience are going to be interested to learn from your experience. You have quite the background, a real list of accomplishments. There’s a lot that everyone can benefit from. It would be great for us to start at the beginning. What was your path to becoming a consultant and coach? Did you find it to be a hard transition to make?
I left the university. I wanted to be an artist, but I ended up switching to economics because my dad couldn’t figure out how being a painter was going to help me pay my college bills. I got a job with GE. I was Head of Strategic Planning at one of their divisions. We did a buyout, an LBO, of that business unit from GE when Jack Welch came in. We grew that for a few years. I had a vision collision with my partners. I left there and started a medical device company. I grew that for several years at a rapid rate. I had another vision collision with my partners. At that point, that’s when I sat down. I wrote a book and started consulting. That was almost two decades ago when I first hung my shingle and that’s what I’ve been doing and writing books and giving speeches since then.The minute you don't love the game anymore is when you should get out of the game. Click To Tweet
I want to come back to that tipping point or the transition point when you got into consulting. You’ve worked with multiple partners in different businesses and inevitably ran into some challenges in those relationships. Do you feel that for a consultant, a coach or someone going into the business and professional services that having a partner is a good thing? Do you think that it’s something that people should avoid?
In the consulting and coaching business, unless you’re going to scale it by hiring hundreds of employees, there isn’t this fear that the marketplace grabs this idea that you have and you start printing cash. That’s what happened with the two businesses that I was in. People started to lose their vision of why we were in business in the first place and their focus was all on the wealth that was being accumulated. Rather than reinvesting that into the business, they wanted to start drawing it out. That was the nature of why these investors, who own the majority share, why they were doing what they were doing. If you’re going to partner with someone to do consulting and coaching and they don’t love what they’re doing, they don’t enjoy getting up every day and solving hard problems and helping clients succeed. I would not get into business with them because they have some other intention and it probably revolves around money. Money isn’t something that you need to do to keep going, but it shouldn’t be the thing that gets you up in the morning.
I was watching an interview with Chip Wilson, the Founder of Lululemon, whether you like Lululemon or not and you wear yoga pants and all that. He talked about his own experience of growing that business. When he stepped back from it, he had other people come in and take over who was much more focused on delivering for Wall Street and folks on the physical side of the business and not so much around innovation and ideas, that’s when the company started to get into trouble. It wasn’t until they were able to retake some of that when things turned around for them. Even for the independent solo consultant or if you’re running a small firm, many times we’re focused on the numbers, on the metrics because that’s a way for us to make growth tangible. If we do that and only focus on that, we forget to continue honing our own craft and looking at ways that we can innovate and deliver more value to our clients. I’ve seen many people get in trouble doing that. What’s your own experience around that whole side of innovation and wealth creation?
I’ve been through the gamut as well. To me, it’s like a sport. You don’t get up in the morning and play sports and every couple of seconds look at the score, because the score isn’t the reason you’re out there playing sports in the first place. It’s because of the love of the game. The minute you don’t love the game anymore is when you should get out of the game. People who are looking at the score continuously to see how they’re doing, instead of looking at the process, the game, the strategy, and the growth. Everything they’re trying to do to not only improve other people’s lives but turn themselves on. If you don’t have that passion in you to do that, go do something else. The numbers should be an indication of how well you’re doing the process and enjoying the process and pouring yourself into the process. You shouldn’t be working for numbers or you’re going to wake up some day and say, “What happened in the last many years?”
You never run into someone on their last breath on their deathbed saying, “I wish I had more money.” It’s all about, “I wish I spent more time with this loved one or did this thing that I wanted to do but never did because there was fear or someone told me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it.” Let’s go back to you becoming a consultant. You were making this transition. You’re running these different businesses. How did you go about getting your first client?
What happened is I ended up quitting and leaving the medical device company. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was sitting at my kitchen table at 11:00 in the morning staring into a bowl of cereal. I looked at my daughter to the left and she was eating some cereal. She was looking at a spoon and she was turning it over and over and looking at it. Her eyebrows were rising. I looked at it and I said, “What are you doing with that spoon, Andrea?” She goes, “Daddy, how come if I look at the spoon this way, I’m right side up. If I flip it over, I’m upside down.” It almost spilled right out of my mouth were the words concave and convex. I realized I don’t know why the image is flipping upside down and right side up. At that point, it was a crazy light bulb moment. I said to myself, “Most business people don’t know why what they do work, but they know a lot of words. They picked up at every place.” I wrote a little book about a business guy who’s lost his way in his work and his passion. Serendipitously, he meets this little girl and through her eyes rediscovers his creativity and passion. I self-published it back in the day before the internet. I spent a lot of money sending books out there and it took off. It was a little book called Sandbox Wisdom. It took off and I started getting phone calls from all over the place to come and give talks and consult. I didn’t go out and try to find clients, they started coming to me.
You definitely had a clear intention of who you were sending this book to. How do you choose who to send this book to? Share with us who did you send it to?
What I would do is I would read things like most of the CEOs where I would read their philosophies and try to understand their intentions, their values, and their culture. If I read something somewhere, I said, “That’s the guy,” and I put the thing in an envelope and sent that out. While I was looking for people that had a shared sense of what the world was about, how they viewed it and how they approached it, anytime I saw that anywhere, I put an address on an envelope and I put a little note in there with a book and I mailed it.
What do the notes say? I’m interested to know what the angle was or how you introduced yourself and the book to these people.
They were all specific notes. I saw something from the CEO of FedEx at the time. Somebody interviewed him and it was in Forbes. I read the magazine, I read the article, then I would pull out something that he said and I said, “I believe exactly the same thing. I loved reading that article, I don’t often read that. Here’s something that I believe, I hope you find time to read it. I hope you enjoy it. If I can ever help you in any way, please let me know.” That’s it. I’d put my business card in it and off it went. As soon as it went off, it was like a message in a bottle in the ocean. I was done. No follow-ups. No worries. If they connect with it, they connect with it. If they don’t, they don’t and on we go to another bottle.
What did that look like? Paint the picture for us so we can get a little more detail and specifics around this. Roughly how many do you think that you sent out? How many inquiries or calls did you receive from sending those out?
I sent hundreds if not over a thousand books. I didn’t track it. I didn’t keep a database or anything.Branding is the art of influence and value creation. Click To Tweet
How much business do you think that generated for you in the first few years?
Thousands of dollars.
It was definitely ROI positive for you.
Everything blew up. I was getting called from governments to come and give talks at various governments about innovation and success. It took on a life of its own and it wasn’t because I had some objective and strategy. It was because I was trying to connect with people that felt what I felt and desired what I desired in life, in the world, and in business. I sent something out that touched them in a certain way.
Looking back, if you were to do that again or let’s say you were counseling someone who is about to do something along those lines. Do you think not doing follow-up and having the mindset of, “Put it out there and see what happens,” is the right mindset? Do you think that someone should enter into that type of activity with a lot more strategy and a clear plan to follow up in mind?
I’ve launched things subsequent to that and I’ve continued with that particular counterintuitive strategy. I’m like Johnny Appleseed. I’m going to go as far and wide as I can and spread as many seeds as I can. If those seeds started sprouting and I get an indication, I’ll come to water it and take care of it. I’m not going to try to connect with somebody who I don’t get an initial connection from. I find that not only does it waste my time, but it starts making me doubt myself, “Why am I calling this guy over and over again and I’m not getting any clear response?”
These are great ideas and experiences that you’re sharing. You’ve painted the picture of how you got those first few clients. What about now? Your business is much more developed now, many years later on. In terms of your marketing and how you continue to get clients for your business, what is working best for you now?
It came full circle. I’m doing a lot of consulting work through referrals and all. I started to become frustrated with what I was seeing in the world of business and work because people didn’t understand how to influence other people. That’s what branding is about. It’s the art of influence and value creation. People didn’t understand it. They were winging it. I’m out giving talks, I’m consulting and it wasn’t working. I could see that my clients weren’t adopting the philosophies that I was teaching. I got frustrated. I sat back down and I wrote a book about how this all works, The Business of Belief. I’ve had publishers before but on this one, I didn’t. I wanted to get it out there. I self-published it and the same thing happened. It blew up. I’m self-published in twelve countries. Contracts came directly to me from people who saw this on Amazon. Here come the phones, they start ringing again.
Did you start sending this new book, The Business of Belief, to anyone that you thought could be an ideal client?
Not a client, that’s the good news. I never looked at, “That looks like a potential client.” I would read something somewhere. I read something in Inc. Magazine that some guy wrote and I went, “That’s amazing,” and I sent him the book. The next thing you know, he says, “I’d like to review this on Inc.,” and Inc. picked it as the number one inspirational business book of the year because this guy decided he wanted to write about it. I’m a big believer in spreading it as wide as possible. If you believe in the six degrees of separation thing, you don’t know who knows someone. Someone reads the book and then they’re having a glass of wine with the CEO of this company. He’s complaining about something and the guy says, “Have you read this book?” He hands him the book or he says, “Go get it.”
This reminds me of one of my early mentors when I was building a business in Japan. His name was Moriya. He was a managing director for a large Japanese advertising agency. He took a similar approach, not by sending books because he has not written a book from what I know. He would be reading the newspaper every single day. He’d read multiple newspapers, probably the most common was The Nikkei newspaper and he would cut out articles and he’d fax them over to clients or he would bring them to meetings. His whole focus was on value and he wasn’t saying, “Read this article because you should hire us to do this work for you.” It was like, “I thought you might find this interesting.”
Business is about creating value for other people. It’s a dance. It’s an exchange of value. I got up one morning and it was 5:00. I’m having a cup of coffee and I saw a copywriting article on Twitter. I know a guy that’s a copywriter that’s struggling to scale his business. I sat down and I went through Twitter. I found his address, sent him a direct message and said, “Here’s an article for you.” Fifteen minutes later I got a, “Thank you so much.” Instead of thinking about yourself all day long and what you need and, “How do I get ahead?” start thinking about everyone out there struggling. In this chaotic marketplace, everyone is struggling to make sense and to keep moving forward. If you have any insights at all that you can share with people, they look at you differently. They look at you as a source of value. That’s what a strategic consultant is as a source of value.Business is about creating value for other people. It's a dance; it's an exchange of value. Click To Tweet
It sounds like what you’re espousing here is provide value to as many people as you can. Always be thinking about others. Don’t think so much about yourself. Don’t strategically plan out how you’re going to enter a market or connect with an ideal client, “Am I misunderstanding that? Am I misconstruing it?” I want to be clear on what you’re saying because I want to play the devil’s advocate and say, “If you’re always focusing on other people, providing value to others and not thinking as much about yourself or strategic planning for your own business, then how can you grow your business?”
When you say think about the ideal clients, you can’t plan for the ideal client. What makes a great consultant? A great consultant is made by having a great client. Without a great client, you’re not a great consultant. All your business typically comes from referrals anyway. What happens is when you start getting inquiries, because people see the work you do or the value you provide. Do your homework especially around understanding that client, their culture, their desires, and beliefs. The unique value they provide and be picky. It doesn’t matter about the money. That doesn’t matter. Can you create successful clients? If you can create successful clients, other clients come your way.
If you go into something and you say, “I can get this client. This is my potential best type of client. Let me go get that.” You don’t even know if that client is a client that will dance with you in a way that will make the relationship something that’s beneficial for both of you. How do you know that? You don’t know the people. You’re probably reading their financials or something. You’ve got to sit, talk to the person that’s going to hire you, talk to the CEO. What do they think they know? What do they need? What are they struggling with? How arrogant are they? Do they think they know more about what you do than what you think? Find the ideal client through that process. Help them and I guarantee you, if you help them achieve what they’re looking for in the marketplace, they tell everyone they know about the consultant that helped them.
Let’s talk about your book, The Business of Belief. A lot of your work these days focuses on that. What is that? What does that look like? Can you offer a tangible example of this?
This is what people know. They know that everyone’s overwhelmed with choice in every category. They know that people are easily distracted and highly skeptical. They know that. In order to motivate behavior change in an age of abundance, then you have to figure out how you’re going to strategically and creatively appeal to how people’s minds work. They don’t have one mind. People have three minds. They have the feeling mind and that’s rapid instinctive. It’s driven by their perceptions and their intuition. Something they see, something they read. It’s how people behave. They don’t read something and say, “Let me go investigate that.” That’s not what they do. They get this feeling of knowing something. That entire feeling mind does is it screens out for the thinking mind anything that’s not important to them. They say, “That’s not important. I don’t believe that. Off to this one.” They’re looking to be stimulated and protected.
Once it moves to the thinking mind, you’ve got this biased, lazy, highly skeptical mind which is interested in itself. It wants to feel good about its decisions and associations. It’s looking for relevance and inconsistencies. It wants to be right. You have to put out information, imagery, and everything that appeals to those two minds because the final mind, which is the believing mind, is strange. You talk to people who believe things and you walk away and you went, “How does this guy believe that?” It’s a mixture of their personal feeling and thinking mind. It wants to identify with something or someone. It understands life by creating cause and effect stories, which by the way are all BS. They’re made up but that’s what we do. We create this, “Cause and effect. This happened, therefore that happened.” “What about all the random stuff that happened in between? Nobody ever talks about that.” If you understand how this works, that it always starts with the feeling mind which is driven by people’s motivations. It moves over to this rationalizing thinking mind. You can sit down and say, “Are we appealing to the marketplace in the right way?”
I want to make sure that we can add some context and present this in a clear and digestible manner for the consultants in our audience. You’re a consultant yourself. You’re a coach and you speak as well. For the consultants in our audience, how can they apply some of the best practices of what you espouse around the business of belief? What would be a tangible example or tangible point that we could use to illustrate what the business of belief is all about?
The most important insight that I can give is that if you’re not succeeding as a consultant, you’re not tapping into the desires of the clients. Those desires, whatever they are, and their perceptions are what is driving their choices. You have to look at them and say, “Hold on a minute.” I’ll give you a perfect example. When I first wrote my book back at the turn of the century, there were a handful of other people that were writing popular business books. We got all the speeches. We got them all because when people were looking for speakers, they were looking for validation that they had experts. They said, “Who are the experts? They must be the people who have published books.” All of a sudden, self-publishing, Amazon, and all that comes up. Now, everyone has written a book. You don’t look anymore and say, “I need validation.” If I’m going to hire somebody, they’ve written a book. Instead of being the branding expert, let’s say that you run an organization that’s affiliated with financial services or banking and you say, “I want a banking expert, banking-branding expert.” Do you see what happens? You start narrowing in on your identity and you say, “I want the expert that does X. Instead of an IT expert, I want an IT expert that works with financial services firms.”
To clarify what you’re saying here is the importance of specialization. The market is becoming more and more complicated. There are more options and choices than ever before. There are more people calling themselves consultants. In order to stand out from the crowd, even though at times it may seem and feel people might lose opportunities by going more and more narrow. In fact, in your experience the more narrow you go, the more relevant you become. The more aligned your messaging is than with those that you want to serve and add value for. That’s what helps people to believe more that you are someone that can truly add value?
I’m not saying necessarily to go narrow. What I’m saying is that people, when they start looking for someone to help them, in the past they look broadly because the market was arranged like that. “Here’s a brand consultant. Here’s a financial consultant. Here’s this.” People can do it now, can establish authority in these small niches, that’s what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean that all of a sudden that narrowness has to be an industry. Maybe you say, “I’m going to be a consultant who leads with values. It doesn’t matter that I’m going to do this industry or that industry. I’m looking for the clients out there who also lead with their values, with their purpose.”
That’s your own experience in terms of identifying people that you wanted to connect with and who you are sending your book to. You weren’t targeting one specific industry, but rather someone who you felt you would have alignment with and that’s who you reached out to.
If you look at my client base, it’s all over the place. I have advised the industry, technology, media, financial services, education and publishing, consumer products, medical devices, telecommunications, and software services. It doesn’t matter. It’s the people who have the same way of looking at the world as me. If you’re an IT consultant, you have to make a decision. You have to ask yourself, “Who do I connect within an authentic, powerful and visceral way? Do I connect with the small business owner? Do I connect with the entrepreneur? Do I connect with the value-driven CEO? Who do I share the same types of the perspective of the world with?” That’s how you narrow your focus.In order to motivate behavior change in an age of abundance, you have to strategically and creatively appeal to how people's minds work. Click To Tweet
Speaking of some of the clients that you’ve served in multiple different industries, one thing that stood out to me when I was looking at your website is the testimonials that you have. You have testimonials from some established organizations and companies that you’ve given presentations for and keynotes and so forth. Many of them state how engaging you are as a speaker. The theme that continues to come up in many interviews that I do is that speaking is a great way to get in front of more ideal clients to generate business, to create a pipeline, to create more opportunities. I’m interested in your approach to speaking. If you had to hone in on one thing or a couple of things that you do or that you have found to work exceptionally well that helps you to get the audience more engaged. That creates the testimonials that you have received on your website, what would you say that one or two things are?
There are two parts to that question. One, does speaking bring you the types of consulting clients that you’re looking for? That’s one question because I’m not sure I believe that. The second thing is how do you engage an audience if you’re up in front of them?
You’re bringing out the first one up. That’s not even a question. I was looking at your website. I’m seeing you have some great testimonials from people. The assumption I made is that these would be ideal clients for you. Correct me if I’m wrong or if otherwise or maybe your experience has been that you’ve spoken and you have or have not gained ideal clients from that. What was top of mind for me is that you have received some great testimonials about how engaging you are as a speaker. I’m sure you have some nuggets of wisdom or best practices that others could benefit from.
I don’t think you find your best consulting clients giving speeches. It’s almost a different client base. The people that are looking to engage an audience are looking to hire a consultant. It’s a little bit different intention.
Your experience that the people who you speak in front of, they’re great as speaking clients. In terms of consulting clients, your best consulting clients have come from referrals or sending all those books?
My best consulting clients come from people who are interested in solving some hairy problem. They believe that I have the ability and the connections and the insights to do that. People who watch me speak don’t necessarily believe that at the end of my speech. They say, “Great information, great guy, great this great, great that,” but they might not have enough information once they leave there to know what I can help them do.
How do you think about both speaking and consulting or sending out books or referrals in terms of where you place your focus? Where are you prioritizing your time to get the greatest return? Is it worthwhile for you to be doing both those things? Do they fit together? Do you feel you’re waiting for more of your time and more of your energy into speaking, sending books, consulting and referral generation? What’s your mindset and approach to that?
Most consultants would love to be highly paid keynote speakers because you make in 45 minutes what you typically make in a month killing yourself with a client. Everyone is trying to jump into that game. It’s such an overcrowded space. Everybody that tells you that they’re doing well, they’re probably bending the truth a little bit because everybody is jumping into it, actors, actresses, ex-military, ex-politicians, and singers. It’s a new source of income for them. A lot of people that are looking to put people in seats are looking for celebrity status to drive ticket sales or attendance. As a consultant, I wouldn’t look at speaking and say, “If I give speeches, this is my way of drawing people in.” I wouldn’t do that. I would look for opportunities to network with people where they’re trying to get information, to learn about how to succeed.
It’s tough because people’s time now is compressed, to find some time with people. If you can give free speeches and you can get decision-makers to take 45 minutes and sit there, have a cup of coffee and watch you, do it. That’s a good source of at least giving out your expertise, demonstrating it, handing them a book, handing them a pamphlet or whatever so that they walk away and maybe call you later. I’ve got 500,000 views on my TED Talk about belief. The phone has never rung based on that. It’s people being entertained for seventeen minutes. A CEO who’s struggling with, “How do I grow my business?” is not sitting at his desk watching TED Talks all day long.
What do you do to engage people, whether or not people decide to go the speaking route, whether you want to be better at giving presentations or interacting with a group of people? What one or two mindsets, approaches, activities or actions would you recommend and that you have found to work best to engage people?
There are three steps to doing this and they’re not easy. I can’t throw out the answers to each of the steps, but I’ll tell you what the steps are. The first step is engagement. You have to figure out how to arouse people’s feelings. You have to engage their conscious attention somehow and point them in the direction of value. You have to understand what will engage and arouse those people’s feelings? What value are they looking for? You can go out and you can figure out in a creative way how do I bring those feelings to life? You’ve got these feelings brought to life in someone and they say, “These people can help move me forward.”
The second step is you’ve got to get them interested in what you do and the way you do that is number one, you validate their existing beliefs. Anything that signals to them that they don’t believe what you believe, they’re gone. You feed their hunger for whatever they’re looking for, not you. You enhance their sense of self. If somebody’s looking at you when they feel bad about themselves because of how you’re presenting it, you’re out. Finally, it’s belief and that’s how you come alive in their imaginations and you convey purpose. You allay their skepticism and you do that through your actions with them and through others, through referrals, through how you provide value to them. I cannot begin to tell you how many people, big businesses I consult with, that will send me proposals from consultants and I read them and I say, “I don’t think these people even thought through what they sent.” It’s like they don’t even understand who the client is. It’s some cookie cutter thing.If you're not succeeding as a consultant, you're not tapping into the desires of the clients. Click To Tweet
These are terrific points and I’m glad that we’re bringing them to the forefront here for everyone to think about and I hope to act on. Many consultants out there will even try and use a proposal to win the business. They haven’t taken the time to understand what the client wants and to dig deep into all the reasons for it and what it could mean to them. Help them to understand the value and the cost of inaction and all that other good stuff. I listened to a podcast at the gym, and another person who’s given lots of talks was talking about how in their experience, the most important thing to be effective at speaking is to connect with people and to show them that you understand what’s going on in their minds. The words that he used were, “You need to understand your audience.” That is something that as consultants and coaches we all need to do, to have a meaningful conversation. We need to either already understand what’s going on in the minds of those people that we want to serve or we need to be interested enough and committed enough to engage in that conversation. To ask those questions and not just to launch into, “Here’s what I do and here’s how I can help you,” and all that stuff. Those are three great topics or points that people should be thinking. Thank you for sharing those.
Think of it this way. The marketplace is a dance between interested and interesting. You’ve got to be both now. It’s a competitive marketplace. You have to be interested in a way that people say, “He understands me. She understands me. They understand me,” but you’ve got to be interesting in a way that draws them in the first place so that they can say that.
Go and check out Tom’s book, The Business of Belief, and the other books that he’s written as well. That goes without saying but Tom, what book are you reading now? What book have you read recently that left a mark on you that you think is one that others should read as well?
I’ve got a stack of books because I’m working on this deep philosophy of life and of why people don’t stretch and become creative and compassionate. I’ve got books stacked up here that I’m reading mostly philosophy books.
It doesn’t need to be a business book. It can be any book that you think might help a consultant either in business or in life or that you think is an important work. This is always a hard one. When people ask me the same question, I have the same response. Typically, which is looking at the bookshelf and going like, “I don’t even know where to begin.” Sometimes, there will be something that I’m reading that stands out. Is there anything at all for you?
If you want to understand how the mind works and it’s a big, thick, deep book. You can go read the Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman. Maybe you come out of that with a better understanding of the fact that human beings are not rational creatures. This is the guy who won the Nobel Prize in economics for basically pioneering behavioral economics. Everybody used to think that people are rational actors and they’re not. The first step is to try to understand it lives viscerally in your gut. “I get it. People are not rational.” From there, you can take steps to move forward with your strategies that make sense based on how people behave. That’s probably the best book out there to do that.
Tom, I want to thank you so much for coming on, sharing a bit of your story and some of the best practices and wisdom. I do appreciate it.
Thank you, Michael. This has been great. This has been my pleasure.
I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. Where’s the best place for them to go to do that?
Tom, thank you again so much.
- Tom Asacker
- Sandbox Wisdom
- The Business of Belief
- Thinking, Fast and Slow