Why should branding matter to consultants? After all, it wouldn’t matter what specific messaging you’re putting out as long as you have that intent to help people, right? Dead wrong. In this episode, Michael Zipursky and his guest drum in the importance of honing down into a niche and becoming an expert in it to be able to expand your earning potential. Steve Morris is an advisor, author, and speaker who has worked with thousands of business leaders since 1994. Steve’s educational background had nothing to do with business, but he effectively leveraged his fascination for human behavior to build his own design marketing agency, which he later sold. Steve may have worked inside an agency, but his insights on growing a consulting brand resonate even with independent consultants and small agency owners. Make sure to listen in and gather some wonderful advice on how you can evolve the perfect brand for your consulting business.
I’m with Steve Morris. Steve, welcome.
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Steve, you’re an advisor, author, speaker, founded a brand strategy and digital marketing agency, which you later sold. You’ve touched over 3,000 business leaders, more than 250 global, national, and regional brands since 1994. Your clients include companies like Samsung, ESPN, Disney, NFL, Mattel, Sony, and Amazon just to name a few. You have an MFA in Design from Temple University, Tyler School of Art, and an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts, Psychology, and Philosophy. To get us started, none of that speaks business, yet here you are, have worked with many well-known organizations. I know that many trained designers often feel like they lack business best practices and how-tos when they’re going through design or art school. How did you feel about that when you started your own design marketing agency?
The world of design is both an incredibly potent world because the best designers are trained to think from a strategic standpoint or even from a conceptual basis, live within the world of possibilities, and then bring those ideas into fruition. Fortunately, I’ve worked with a lot of people in the creative industry or the design industry. They have to learn how to do business while doing business. It’s like learning to fly and inventing the airplane at the same time. It can be a challenging thing. For me, one of the things that always worked out or tapped into my weird little individual genius is I was always interested in what makes people tick, what drives people. It’s not just the consumer side of things and how customers might react to a particular brand, product or service that’s out in the world, but what makes the leaders within the organizations tick and why they’re doing business the way they’re doing it.
Partially, this taps into the philosophy, psychology, and sociology background that I have, which is getting the heads of those people and saying, “Why are we doing this business? Why are we doing this product, to begin with, trying to connect the design thread into the storytelling thread?” Luckily, when I started out way back in 1994 and opened up my first business at that point, I had to learn how to do business. It took me a solid five years of working with coaches, with consultants, and reading tons of books on business to steep myself into, what was I doing beyond the craft of design at that point? Honestly, it’s been a lifelong journey. I still learn from stuff, still have coaches and consultants that I work with, still read tons of books. Some of them happen to be on business and some on how we think, what makes us tick, and what drives us as human beings.
Do you remember your first big client win? It’s the one that gave you more confidence and maybe even helped you to put the business and the brand on the map.
I’m talking about the previous business, the one that I sold in 2017. I remember we had gotten the big industry publication had done an article on new emerging agencies. I happened to get selected in what was this big business annual of a publication called HOW Magazine. I was one of 5 or 6 business leaders who were featured there. At that point, I had 5 or 6 people on my team, maybe as many as seven, but we’re starting out and they chose us because of this strategic thinking and the great design work. We landed on the pages of that publication. Within a month, I had two clients reach out to me and one of which was a dream client, and that was Hasbro, the toy company. They’re in Rhode Island.
They had a big project for us that they said, “We read your profile. We want to work with you, guys.” They flew me out there to meet with them and I ended up building a new brand guide for all of Tonka toys which was a phenomenal project. That publication getting coverage in that, and then them seeing us in that publication was a social proof or third-party endorsement, where they said, “If you’re good enough to be in this business publication, profile there. We want to work with you. We love what we saw and what we talked about within the article.” That blossomed into all kinds of other things. One client turned into the next, and we had a many-year relationship with Hasbro even.
Let’s work back a little bit from there. How did you and what did you do to even end up being featured in that publication? Were you speaking a lot, were you writing a lot, were you sending emails to people? Walk us through what you think made the biggest difference in allowing you or in supporting you to get to that place where you got recognized?
There were some things that happened before that in the agency that I was working within Washington, DC. When I got out of graduate school, I climbed the agency ladder quickly. I was a 25-year-old Creative Director for a famous agency in Washington DC. Through the work that I was doing with some of the clients there, I also got coverage in all kinds of publications, which then I got to do speaking engagements and things at AIGA events or American Institute for Graphic Arts, spoke at some regional chapters, and then ended up speaking at some of their national events. The talks and the work that I was doing at this other agency was well received and I was getting covered there, when it came time to open my own agency, the editors already knew me.
My name was out there in the industry. The people understood the work that I was doing and now the work that I was doing at the agency. I had reached out to one of the editors that I knew at one of the publications and said, “We finished up this great project for this nonprofit organization. I wonder if you might consider covering it in an article.” I knew how to pitch articles at that point with my own PR publicist. That turned into a small article and then they kept reaching out for other content. I ended up being asked to be in this business publication, which was for HOW Magazine. It was because I was fusing together this strategy of the business with the creative side of the industry. Speaking doesn’t hurt, doing great work doesn’t hurt, and having connections at some of these publications didn’t hurt back then.
When you look at that experience over those years, even though you were inside an agency, you have the benefit of them being well-known and being established. Are there any lessons that you could pull out, like extract or draw from that if you applied to a solo, independent consultant or a small consulting firm owner, or even a small agency owner that you think might be relevant? What did you learn or take away from that if you were to guide somebody and say, “Look at this, try this, do this to get on more stages or to reach out and be accepted by editors,” anything stands out to you?
The biggest thing, and I Iearned this in hindsight, was the power of capturing and distilling a story that people can get to understand. At that point, I was a relatively young creative director, I knew how to craft a story that was for an audience. All I did was turned that on its head when we were pitching publications, or if I was even pitching to be a speaker on a particular stage. It was crafting, distilling a simple story that was not so much about me, even though I was the one delivering that, but you could craft it in such a way that people out in the world could understand what that was about. It was the mindset of answering the question of, “What’s in it for them,” and making sure that you shape the story that is all about them.
This could be if you’re pitching to do a keynote or pitching to be covered in the New York Times or whatever. Any of those publications, they’re interested in not you, but their leadership. When you pitch what’s in it for them, you’re always painting the context of, “What is your reader going to get out of this? What is your audience going to get out of this? If I’m up on a stage, what are the people that are in the audience going to take away from this particular talk or article?” Making sure that you’re always telling stories from that particular perspective. I’ve carried it with me and use that tool over and over again.Do a few things and do them really well. Don’t try to do it all. Click To Tweet
When you look at your timeline as either working in an agency, but even more when you are running your own agency, which you later sold, and then now your consulting, speaking, business, and so forth, have your marketing or your approach to marketing changed if you think about almost chapters of your career or your life for you to break those down? Are you doing different marketing now than you were doing several years ago or when the business first got started? Can you walk us through how maybe your approach to marketing has shifted?
The thing that has stayed constant in marketing is always providing value to an audience out there. Part of what I talked about that, what’s in it for them, is the articulation of that value, but making sure you’re using mechanisms that create the close connection so people understand what that value is all about. If I’ve changed anything over the years, I’ve gotten rid of anything that cannot convey what’s in it for them or that value proposition and lean as heavy as I can into the storytelling attributes of the marketing itself. I walk around the world with a particular mindset, especially when it comes to marketing for my business and even for any businesses, “Do a few things and do them well, but don’t try and do it all.”
We have at our disposal these days, we have a wide spectrum of media outlets that would include social media to book writing, to speaking, to podcasting, on and on. I choose only to write books and blogs. I speak, but I do that for paid purposes. I don’t have my own podcast, but when I do those things, I want them to be something of considerable value and value for the audiences that I’m reading. I have a mailing list of 25,000 people who have opted into that list. Every time I send out a weekly email, I get all kinds of feedback that says, “This piece landed on my desk on the day that I needed it. Well done. By the way, we’ve got a project coming up that we want to talk to you about.” The second part of that doesn’t always happen, but I’m top of mind and people know that I’m generous. Am I providing value? I want to always infuse that generosity within my marketing.
Is that different? Your focus is more about content and delivering value through that content. Was that always the case, or at times, for example, when you are starting your agency, where you’re doing more outreach, outbound and knocking on doors or sending direct mail? Walk us through how things were before compared to now?
We used to do a wide variety of things at the agency where we would buy mailing lists and we would send out a series of triggered postcards or direct mail type of pieces. That was helpful, but what we found was that it generated interest, but not necessarily the right kind of interest. We tried different things around that, but the things that were more personalized or the things that tend to tended to work best.
An example of that would be?
We used to create these what I used to call unignorable openers. For instance, there was a toy company that we ended up working with. This was back in the early days of the founding of the business. There was a couple of toy companies that we wanted to work with. We created custom games that were branded by us for them and told a story about how we could help them. It was a one-off little project. We spent hours on it, and only to send it to the CMO of this particular toy company who received it on their desk and they couldn’t help but say, “This thing is awesome. You guys put so much work into this.” We have to talk to these guys.
It was that very personalized type of thing and mixed with a fair bit of creativity that makes them think that you’re thinking about their business and there’s something to be said for people wanting to work with. When I was hiring employees, one of the things I always wanted to hear was, “I don’t want just a job. I want to work for you or for this company and I want to work here.” The same thing happens in the world of consultancy or even the agency world, where people want to know that you’re invested in what their cause is and what their business is and that you’re not just looking for a client or your next client, but you want to be able to help them. You’re convicted in the intent to help them and you want to serve their business.
What gave you the confidence to invest all that time, money, and energy to develop that game, that experience, or product for that CMO that you want to win over? How did you know it was going to work or did you not know? You spent a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of money resources right on this. Why do it? Did you do something similar before that you knew would work or you said, “Let’s try it?” What was going on in your mind?
I don’t know that I have evidence that would work in the very beginning. I felt good about it. I felt even if we never get a phone call back, it’s still a great exercise to let someone know you are thinking about them and care. After the first few times, we did it, every time the phone rang or every time there was some type of response. We didn’t always get the client. There wasn’t always a match or the budget wasn’t there. The confidence grew over time because we saw that it was getting traction. Back to your earlier question, we started abandoning all other forms of marketing other than me getting out and speaking on stages and then us sending that unignorable thing out to people. That was the only thing we did later on. We had great success with it.
In 2017, you sold your agency business. Why did you do that?
I had a fairly big team at that point and most of what I was doing was adult babysitting, which was when you run a fairly big team, part of your job as managing that team. That can take up a lot of your time and energy where I did a time analysis over a two-month period of, “How did I spend my working day?” The way I looked at it was, “How do I spend the hours of my waking day? How much sleep am I getting?” After two months of that time analysis, I looked at the time that I was spending on the things that I felt, A, that I loved and B, that were in my zone of genius as I defined it at that point. I compared to all the other time that I was spending there do on the things that I had to do. It was 12% off. I was in my zone of genius and the rest of the time was doing all the things that I had to do to run the business. I thought, “What am I going to do about this?” I couldn’t figure out a way to unwind the other attributes to it. I thought, “It’s time for me to set this business out for sale and then transition out so I could do the work that I’m doing now.”
How do you do that? Did you already have a potential acquire or did you go to a business broker? What did you do to exit from that business?
Lots of it are confidential, but I can talk about some of my mental approach to it. When I made the mental decision, there were some things that I knew I wanted to structure in-house and have the right team so that when I transitioned out, there was a sellable entity there. What I thought about, there was two year’s worth of work to reconfigure certain things within the business so that it was ready for sale. At that point, I started contacting people and there was somebody who I was working with that was an expert in the merger and acquisition world. He helped me think about how to position it.A beautiful business operates with deep integrity based upon its beliefs and the value that it creates for the world. Click To Tweet
By that point, I had a couple of suitors come my way because there are people that want to buy businesses all the time out there. I kept those people at bay for a lot of years because I wasn’t interested or I didn’t think I was interested. When it came time and those invitations came in, I started to have those conversations. When I ultimately sold it, it was between a large holding company and another agency. The large holding company would have wrapped me up for another 5 to 7 years and I was not interested in that. I ended up merging with this other group.
Are you still active in that business now?
I advise them, but I’m not fully active in that business, though there was a transition period where I was much more active in it, but I’m all out, I still send them business, we still talk on a regular basis and I advise them.
How many employees or team members were there total at the time where you exited the business?
There were about 25 people that I had on my full-time roster and there were another 10 to 12 contract employees that we brought in on freelance bases when I sold the business.
Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently with the company either in the way that you ran it or the systems that you used or legal, structural stuff? Anything that could’ve made the business more valuable or better? Anything in hindsight that stands out? Maybe there are a few that you think like, “These are important for people to know about.”
I did a lot of work in the culture. I’m proud of that within the business. I did a lot of work around the positioning for the company. That was valuable. We had some intellectual property within the black-box approaches within the business. We built things like learning management systems that were valuable within the business. What I wish I would have done was sold it earlier. What I didn’t realize, and this was a personal thing that I was ready to leave the business before I knew I was ready to leave the business. What I wish I would’ve done is sold it earlier, opened up multiple offices because we only had one office, and have something on the East Coast, as well as the West Coast. I’m based in San Diego, so that we had multiple times zones covered. It would have been a much more valuable entity at that point. To do that, I would have changed my life and lifestyle. That’s a minor regret, but I know I have eyes wide open about what it would have taken to get it to that point.
What’s been the biggest change or shift that you’ve seen in how you spend your time now, as opposed to how you spend your time when you were managing and overseeing 25 to 35 to 40 people? What does your day look like now compared to then?
There’s one thing we’re saying which might be a topic for another conversation, but what I had to do was unravel my previous identity as the agency owner in order to transition into being a consultant. What I didn’t realize I was already doing in my agency business as I was already acting as a consultant because I was the key strategist involved in most of our relationships. I did that time marker and I was spending a very small percentage of my time running the strategic side within the business for clients, I’ve shifted that and that’s the line share of what I do. If I were to break it down into either a daily or weekly perspective, I spend my mornings, block off my calendar from 7:00 AM until 10:30 in the morning. That’s my deep work time.
It’s all about either writing or doing strategic work during that time period. It’s not answering emails. I scheduled no conversations, no client meetings, or anything like that during that timeframe. The rest of the day is open to having meetings or deliver on the work and to podcasts. The big shift is I’m working much more in my zone of genius now, which is getting into the heart and soul of organizations and doing the deep strategy work with that around brands, but also around culture. It’s because my hands or my sleeves are rolled up all the time, I get to have a lot more satisfaction in that work.
Do you have any advice for the business owner, consultant or company owner who started off doing everything themselves, and they have this mindset and belief that clients want them, therefore have a challenging time separating themselves from doing the work? They don’t have a lot of time to work on the business because they’re busy working in the business. Any best practices or anything that you might share that you either did at the agency or that you would advise them to do now, knowing what you know?
It’s worth some dissection of what we think clients want and need from us. As consultants or strategists for any organization, even as an advisor, clients want us at our best, for our best thinking on their biggest problems. They don’t need us for the day in, day out, and logistical procedures that might have to happen such as something that a virtual assistant can do or orchestration, or even doing things like delivery of certain elements, even training or something like that. My advice is to get clear about what it is that your clients are hiring you for as an advisor or consultant and get clear about making sure that if from the very beginning you set the relationship with your clients to say, “Here’s what you get me for and it’s the best of what you need me for.” I have this other team around me that’s going to deliver all these other things that I can either outsource through a virtual team or have within my team. Making sure that they know in the beginning that they get you and your thinking, but you’re not going to be doing everything you. You have a bookkeeper, a virtual assistant, and whatever it is that is there to help you deliver on the work.
Steve, you’re an expert in branding and building what you call a beautiful business. To start, what is a beautiful business?
It’s a vital, valuable entity that is built upon a belief-driven business that considers all stakeholders within the operation. The stakeholder menu or field might look like, the leadership, leadership team, managers, entire culture, community, your customers, any investors or partners, and partners might be like a virtual partner or even a virtual assistant that might not be directly on your team into the business itself. The beautiful business borrows from the Japanese philosophical aesthetic tenants of beauty, which has to do with symmetry, harmony, things that are aligned with the laws of nature. A beautiful business as a whole business, it’s a business that operates with deep integrity based upon its beliefs and the value that it creates in and for the world.What is scarce is valuable. Expertise is the only way you can expand your earning potential. Click To Tweet
It creates this beautiful entity that works in cooperation with all the forces that are seen and unseen that are involved within the business. It’s different than a bottom line-driven business in that the bottom line-driven business typically plays what I call the competitive game. You hear the language of, “We’re here to win it. We’re going to win at all costs. We’re going to beat the competition.” Military terms are thrown out there such as, “We’re going to deploy this strategy.” Those things are finding good. To an extent, we do compete and we compete out in the industry. I want to show that it is the cooperative beans, the beans that cooperate with the people around them, that work in harmony with all the things that are out there, they’re the ones that turn out to be the best competitors. That’s the difference between a non-beautiful business and a beautiful business.
What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people, companies, and brands making regarding a beautiful business? What’s holding people back typically the most from having that?
The biggest thing is most people haven’t answered their primary question of why they’re in business. The provocative way I tend to ask people that particular question is, “Tell me, why does your business beyond making money or profit deserve to exist on this planet? We know that the world doesn’t need yet another business that’s in it for profit.” That question is very subjective to the leader or the owner or the founder of that business. The answer to that question creates a point of differentiation or position out in the marketplace. The first mistake I see people make is not asking or knowing the answer to that question and then not integrating that within their business. The second thing I see a lot of people making mistakes out there and it’s tangential in this purpose idea is the position of expertise. Knowing, “What is it that I’m an expert at? How do I articulate that expertise? Who out there in the world needs it and why do they need it?” There are a lot of generalists out there in the agency world. I’ve always tried to caution people away from the generalist mentality into the specialist mentality.
What about if the reader is going, “I know that, but I can help many different people, many different industries. I can do so much.” What advice would you offer to them or maybe steps or an exercise that either maybe you found helpful or you believe could add value for them in going from broad and general to becoming more of a specialist, narrow, and expert mindset?
The expert makes more money than the generalist as a by-in-large rule. If you want to expand your business and your earning potential, then expertise is the only avenue to do that because what’s scarce is valuable. That was only a few people on this planet could do, or the people who are top in their industry who have proven over and over, who can do those things, they’re not only specialists, but they’re experts in what they’re doing and they command a higher price. Also then, the people that come to you, come to you for that expertise and you go up to show up over and over again in your zone of genius. Whereas a generalist is constantly having to adapt, change and learn. It’s not that we shouldn’t be doing that as human beings, but you’re having to learn about how to work with that client again, then it’s fair to ask yourself the question, “Are you serving them in the best way possible? It’s that realm of expertise where people can serve it at a greater capacity?”
You mentioned Japan before and readers might know, I’ve spent several years in Japan running a business there. What comes to mind for me when we talk about expertise is always the Japanese swordsmith who’s making the samurai sword. If you were going into battle, you wouldn’t go to a typical blacksmith who makes carriage wheels or rakes. You’re going to go to the samurai sword master who does the same thing over and over again, and then have some that might sound like a little mundane and repetitive, but if you truly want the best, if you’re seeking out expertise, then you’re not going to go again to that person who pounds any metal. You’re going to go to the one that does the best at that specific area.
It’s great advice that you’re providing. I know it’s a big challenge for a lot of people. It’s helpful to get that perspective from you as well. I want to shift the conversation because I know that you’ve done a lot of thinking and studying on psychology, mindfulness, and that whole area. What’s been most helpful for you to slow down, to put things in perspective, to enjoy the moment? More than ever, we’re in a world where there is so much choice, there’s so much noise, people vying for our attention, people holding the belief that the way to grow is by addition. It’s always about more and more. What have you personally found as a best practice? What have you adopted? What would you suggest to people who are feeling like they’re being torn in many different directions, and they’re not settled or as mindful as it likes to be?
Meditation for me has been one of those tools that I’ve been doing on a daily basis for a better part of a decade-plus. That particular practice which I do every morning is very centering, calming, and it reminds me why I’m here. Within meditation, there’s an act of surrender, which I think is a potent way to think about the world in life and even your work potentially. I don’t mean surrender as a passive thing, but rather an active thing. When we’re in meditation, for instance, or one is in meditation, thoughts are going to come. Not having any judgment about what those thoughts might be that you acknowledge that there’s the thought, and then you let it go.
The practice of that is also applicable to the business world, at least in my world, from trying to stay within my zone of genius is I know that I can’t be all things to all people, but I can be a few special things to a few special people. The arc of my life when I think about it from an integrity standpoint, I want to make sure that I’m doing things that are in service to humanity as big and bright as I possibly can, and that I help make the world a better place. When I walked through the world with that particular set of lenses on, I can more easily identify those people that I feel like I can serve and serve in greater ways.
In a strange way, energetically, it comes back to me because like the writing that I put out there and the things that I talk about, whatever it is that you put out there, people will either repel or be attracted by it. Finding good and as it should be. I want people who want to work with me for the reasons that I do the work that I do because they’re disciplined and driven to create something special in their business. It happens I have the tracker to be able to do that for many different businesses. This act of surrender and discernment, and there’s another thing that I’ve been playing with a lot lately is the word play. Life and work is all a grand experiment.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The more that you think about it as this experimentation, this playful act of creation, the more you can have fun with doing it, and people want to be surrounded by other joyful people. It’s contagious. The more that I incorporate this play and pleasure attribute within the work that I’m doing, which may sound paradoxical and perhaps that it is, the more people have fun with what they’re doing. The more fun that they’re having in what they’re doing, the more creative they are, the more joyful they are, and the more exponential the outcomes that come from it.
Steve, I’ve enjoyed our conversation here. I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work, where is the best place for them to go?
My website is a simple website. There’s a huge amount of information up there and a whole bunch of free tools. The website is MatterCo.co. There you’ll find hundreds of free articles for download. You can sign up for my newsletter there, there’s an easy opt-in form. I only send out one thing per week. I don’t sell a lot through it. There are tons of information on there and I love providing value. There’s also a couple of free downloads for people who want to think about how to incorporate some of the brand principles that I have. There’s a free tool that I give out called Brand Essentials. If you go to MatterCo.co/brand-essentials, there’s a free download and workbook within that.
Be sure to check that out. Steve, thank you so much for coming.
Michael, I appreciate it.