How were you generating your PR stories? Did you have a team of PR experts or were you having hands-on involvement yourself?
No, I did all that myself. That was, for me, like playing. It was probably one of the most fun parts: that, the advertising, and the party giving, were my three favourite parts of the business. So far as generating those ideas, I found that most of the good ideas didn’t come from my sales managers or the brilliant people on the top. I found most of my ideas came from my clerical workers. I would say that was where I got most of my ideas from day-to-day. I knew how to listen.
The other big source of ideas was travelling and play. When I went on a trip, everywhere I looked I got an idea from something: from a bowling ball to a poster, an outfit someone had on, or a new colour. It was about going out into the world and just having fun. I think when you’re mentally in that frame, it all works; certainly, it worked for me. When I was outside playing I always had my big ideas. Always. I never had a good idea at my desk! I could service my business well from my desk, respond, but I never had a creative idea at my desk ever. So I always got people going outside to play and I built that into the company culture as well. I made ‘play’ a big piece of my company, just making sure people were taking breaks. I would dictate vacations for people who didn’t go. I know it’s hard to believe, but some people don’t honestly take vacations.
So we would force them to take vacations and we’d often declare the company closed. I know we have closed the business, closed it down between Christmas and New Year’s every year. A few days before Christmas to a few days after New Year’s. I remember initially some of the powerhouse brokers who were then at the company were outraged: “How do we get our services?” Too bad, we’re closed. When people came back after that break, especially the support staff – which was roughly one-third of the people in the business – they came back loving the company and feeling refreshed. You didn’t have to ask them to work hard; they were just working hard by their nature and so appreciative, sort of “what comes around goes around” kind of thing. So I think those things were key in creating a culture where people wanted to hang out and be there.
Now, fledgling entrepreneurs are often told to step outside their comfort zone and take risks. How big or small do you think these risks should be?
I think risks are key to any business and you’ll never meet a successful entrepreneur who isn’t a risk-taker – period. Let me think of why that is. I think of risk-taking as being like running a chemical company. Research and development. You have to develop new chemicals, new Scotch Tape, new medication, and they have huge budgets to research and develop. If you’re in a real estate brokerage business, nobody has a research and development pile of money to spend. But I saw our company as an innovator and that means doing something first and just trying it out. So we had more failures than we had successes. Trying new stuff is inherently risky because it’s new so it’s not proven and you can’t justify it with your left brain. But if you intuitively feel, “Hey! This kind of makes sense, let me take a shot at it,” what you’re really signing up for is losing the money if it doesn’t work. And I’d say two out of three times things just don’t work. They’re the best theories, the best concepts. But get it out there in the real world where other factors enter in, it often doesn’t work.
So I say it’s not so much about intentionally taking risks, it’s intentionally trying things all the time and with that goes your money and energy behind it. If you think of all the innovators in every industry, the name brands I’m aware of are usually the innovators. They’re often not the biggest company, but they seem the biggest because they’re really good at pumping out new stuff. Really good at PR, really good at marketing, really good at reinventing themselves as part of the culture. So I don’t think anybody signs up and says, “Let me take some risks.” It’s really: “What could we think of that’s new and what could we try, and let’s see what works.” Whether that continues in the business has everything to do with whether you’re willing to take the failure well.
I had a little trick that I did in my company that really helped – whenever I had someone who would try something new, whether it was a new marketing gimmick, a new sales manager rearranging something in the way the business was usually done or whatever. I had a “fun budget” as I called it, or as they called it the “mad money budget.” So every manager had a certain percentage of their production as ‘mad money’ that they could spend as they chose. If it wasn’t spent by year-end, it was gone – so they had to find ways to spend it. What was also inherently good in that was it said, “I trust you” because you can spend it how you want and you don’t have to report to anybody.
What I particularly liked about it: most of the things failed and so when I caught someone failing, I would make a public spectacle of it and reward them. Publicly applaud them and laugh about it and we’d laugh together. So the failing became a part of the culture in a positive way, because this was a hero who was trying something. You have to play that a little carefully because you can’t have 15 failures with no success stories. You have to pick them and pace them well. But the fact is it created an attitude like, ‘we’re supposed to be trying stuff. We’re supposed to be out there doing this stuff, and look, isn’t it funny?’ The other thing is, anything I failed at I made a spectacle of myself too, because if your boss could publicly look like an asshole – excuse my French – then certainly you could too.