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The Obituary Assignment

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Several months ago I received an email from a U.T Business student who asked to meet with some thoughts regarding the “key to success.” This was part of an assignment and knowing that I had advised CEOs and senior business people through-out multiple sectors, knew that we would have a productive discussion. “Before we begin I said, I want to challenge you to write me two things:
“One is your obituary. What would it say if you were to be run over by a bus today after our meeting?”
“Second, assuming that you live another eighty years, what do you want it to say?”
He took his assignment to heart and the next day I received the following:

Obituary today:

University of Texas student Shehryar Siddiqui passed away yesterday after getting hit by the Forty Acres bus.
Shehryar was a senior, studying Biomedical Engineering, and getting ready to go to medical school. He was young for his grade, only 20, but showed a lot of promise and potential for the future. Although he had much to live for, he still had a lot of good times with his closest friends.
Shehryar is survived by his parents and two loving, but annoying, sisters. His roommates were devastated by the loss, but stated “at least we get free tuition and straight A’s for the rest of the year”

Preferred Obituary in 80 years:

Today the world mourns the loss of businessman, inventor, and philanthropist Shehryar Siddiqui. Best known for his work in healthcare, and his companies, Shehryar fought tirelessly to improve the global standard of living. His vision revolutionized the field of medicine, and brought care to some of the most remote parts of the world. His developments helped launch humanity into a new age of immortality, finding cures for countless diseases and almost doubling the average lifespan. As a student at The University of Texas, Shehryar studied biomedical engineering. He planned to go to medical school, but after narrowly avoiding getting hit by a bus one day; he decided he would rather do something bigger with his life.
He went to work with a local venture capital firm and learned about investing and business management. After a few years of work, he got an MBA, and used his experience to start up a company of his own. The research spawned from this company laid the groundwork for his future work.
Twenty years later, as the president of a multimillion dollar company, Shehryar did something very unusual. He quit. Leaving control of his company to someone else, he joined a volunteer program and spent the next five years traveling around the world, visiting small villages, experiencing new cultures, and “choosing to help people as directly as [he] could”. When he returned to the business world five years later, he used his newfound experience to once again change the world of healthcare. His new model rolled out a global initiative to provide services for those who most needed it and could least afford it. Shehryar firmly believed that if we could improve quality of life for the least privileged part of humanity, the whole world would benefit.
At the end of his life, Shehryar was surrounded by his friends and family, and the people he loved most. He stated that he could not have made it to this point in life without all of their help and support in everything he did. He also thanked all the people who had helped mentor and guide him throughout the years. Shehryar said that he had no regrets in life, and although he made a lot of mistakes, he never felt like he missed an opportunity. His one piece of advice to others, “don’t take yourself too seriously”
Impressed with his effort I agreed to meet with him to discuss why I had given him this assignment.
“You see I explained in order to be successful you need to have a purpose. (Elementary) but that purpose needs to transcend into whatever it is you are doing. Building a business, creating a corporate empire, whatever, it needs to be tied in with the larger set of objectives. How many CEOs have allowed their business to sail into uncharted waters because they lost their way? How many businesses have suffered needlessly because they failed to check their original plans and alter them when required?

Planning with the end in mind is not simply a cliche’, it is a requirement for a full and successful life – and a more profitable business.

What about you as a new year begins NOW? Have you sat down and revised your plans lately? Does your progress tie into what will be said about you in your own obituary? Only you know for sure.

The 4th Restaurant, 4th failure

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

The forth restaurant in the same location. Same venue, Mexican cuisine.

I met with the wife of the owner and introduced myself. “I know the history of this location, I explained. I also am familiar with the other previously failed restaurant ventures here and would like to set a time meet to share these insights.”
She set up a meeting between me and her husband at their other location. Unlike the new one, this one was old, dingy and smelled more like a barn then a place to dine. The man was friendly, and asked me how I could help him. I began by sharing some history of the previous failed restaurants at their new acquired location.

Each business had a separate story reflecting disastrous management decisions and poor marketing execution. My intention I explained, was to help ensure that his new acquisition would not join the graveyard of failed restaurants in this locale. This location I explained can be profitable. The demographics support it both from price points and patron capabilities.
I then offered him a menu of options from $650.00 to $5,000. While the lowest option offered ideas for quick marketing, the higher one provided a real long-term marketing strategy. “You want to start with something I suggested. Just sitting there with your sign up alone won’t cut it. Additionally, you need to demonstrate to the community that you are serious about making your place a long-term locale that isn’t like the others.”
I left him with the list of options to consider and said that I would be in touch with him in a couple of days. When I followed-up with him his reply was somewhat expected. “Let me see how many customers come in over the next several weeks – so we can start generating some revenue, then we can get back to you.” Realizing where this was going, I simply replied, “I wish you luck.”
Last week I collected on a wager I made with one of my business associates. I had guess to the day, when they would be closing. Once again, here was another restaurant owner who went into a location on the hope of succeeding but without the necessary working capital to make it happen.
Prior to this (two failed restaurant’s ago) I also reached out to the Property Management Company. My voice-mail message stated “that I wanted to meet with them to discuss how we might prevent the vicious cycle of failed restaurants in the same location from continuing.” No reply. It seems that for them, they would prefer wasting precious time and resources on getting unqualified and inadequately sophisticated businesses into their shopping center just to fill the space. No long-term planning there!
Consider if they had elected to meet to discuss how we could partner with them to ensure that their lessee’s had the business and marketing support to ensure that their new tenants were not only successful there, but from the success of this locale, be able expand to other locations as well. Perhaps the property management might benefit further by helping them in this expansion by offering additional locations. So who is at fault? The landlord or the business owners? I contend both. What do you think?

Why GPS and Spellcheck can’t be counted on – and how it can get into a lot of trouble

Monday, October 20th, 2014

spell check copy

In today’s world of rushing from meeting to meeting many of us fall into the complacent trap of relying too much on technology to take care of us. Cars get lost in western deserts because their GPS sent them on an obsolete road. So there they are, stuck with no gas or water.

But our reliance on spellcheck can easily place our drive for customer acquisition in a desert as well – from bad PR stemming from a spelling error.

Below is an example if what I almost sent out as a follow-up to a meeting with a prospective client. I misspelled the word “obstacles.” Proof reading, I knew that it was misspelled – so I let spellcheck take care of it. Thank goodness, before sending it, I re-read the message one more time. Below is what almost got sent. Can you find what word obstacles was changed to by spellcheck?


Of course when I read what almost went out, I burst out in laughter. Then the fear set in as I began thinking to myself, what if this actually had gone out unchecked? What if the prospect lacked a sense of humor or worse, was offended? To mistakes, we all react differently. Sharing this story may save you, the reader future unnecessary grief. Next time you and your team start relying too much on Spellcheck or GPS take a pause and make sure that it really makes sense.


Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Businesses serious about bringing value for themselves, will want to understand the importance of good planning.
How many small businesses have I spoken to that could have sold for 10 to 20 million dollars if only they had planned with end in mind? Too many!
I just recently reviewed a client profile that has a business in total disarray. “I am so frustrated; I told them – that you did not retain us even five years earlier. We could have helped you build you a solid ship for success. Had we done so, then rather than figuring out a way to get you out of business (debt free) you .may have had a golden parachute worth $10,000,000.”
How sad that they missed the boat. Now the owner (in his senior years) and ready to retire has less time and energy to really turn things around.
If you are a small business owner, I encourage you to make plan with specific strategies designed to maximize your outcome for success. In addition, please consider that though you may be an expert on what you do specifically, it is equally important to surround yourself with competent advisers. It is your journey – and where you end up is often based on a plan with good navigation.

Outing naughty and irresponsible ads during cold and flu season

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013


It is time to out a couple of irresponsible ads from the makers of Tylenol and Alka Seltzer.

The woman stands in the middle of a library and surrounded by patrons as she looks sadly up to the camera. Her nose is so raw from her nasty cold that the viewer is almost tempted to offer her another Kleenex. She exclaims how miserable she is with her cold and congestion. Of course the undercurrent message is that if you have to come into work, and then at least be reasonably comfortable (as you infect everyone else with your nasty illness.)

Equally offensive is the sick mother in the Tylenol ad. After it is established how ill feels, she just takes some Tylenol for colds and flu and Walla! –  She is back to entertaining her children! However the real rub is when she high fives her young child. So let me get this straight, if you take Tylenol you are no longer contagious?

Still, another ad uncomfortably places a woman in the middle seat of an airplane. Logged between two unfortunate souls, she will take the medicine so she feels better during the flight. Never mind that by the time they land, those poor passengers have just had their trips ruined because no doubt they were infected by whatever ailed her!

It is time that the cold and flu people get the message: Stop encouraging irresponsible behavior when people are sick! Rather than the woman sitting in the library – infecting everyone around her (yes, she will also no doubt be touching books and keyboards) why not try a more contemporary and responsible approach.

Perhaps her boss could be offering her a bottle of Alka Seltzer as he ushers her out the door to go home and get some rest. She might even be holding a slip of paper which reads, “Authorized paid sick leave!”

Taking this approach encourages responsible company policy and common sense. In the long-run, we all know (and the facts support it) that when people don’t come to work sick then business actually lose less money in the long run.

As for the mom in the Tylenol ad, how about a similar gesture instead of actual hand to hand contact. Perhaps the voice-over might say, “Though taking Tylenol when you are sick may greatly diminish cold and flu symptoms, you should still avoid contact with others ….”

Finally, don’t even put a sick passenger on a plane – not even for an ad, the risk are simply too great!

It is time that the cold and flu people get the message: Stop encouraging irresponsible behavior when people are sick!Alka-seltzer

Unintended advertising can occur with an act of goodwill

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Sweet Love 1

Every year businesses spend a significant amount of capital on advertising. This is generally a necessity if the business is going to grow and flourish. But how much of this investment could be saved by deeds of good will?

Recently I was lost trying to find a location which was not there. What started as a simple fifteen minute errand soon began devouring my days schedule like a wild pig.

Finally in desperation, I walked into Sweet Love and Sugar Britches, a cute store with lots of cool stuff. Walking through the door I noticed the great smell. Behind the counter, stood a pretty woman with a warm smile. “How may I help you she asked?” I explained my situation and with absolute perseverance she bravely launched into over thirty minutes of trouble shooting until she resolved my problem. “Ok, she said, holding up the map she had drawn, began to explain until I understood how to get there. Better yet, she had also ensured that when I arrived, a real person would be waiting to greet me!

She spent real time going on a mission to help me find my missing location. While she did, I was able to walk around her beautiful store and pick out Christmas presents for family members. I can honestly say that I will be back! In addition, I am excited about sharing my experience about finding a great place to purchase cool things with my friends and neighbors.

Next time you are in Round Rock Texas, go a block south east on Mays Street, just past Round Rock Avenue and check out Sweet Love and Sugar Britches. Inside you will meet a wonderful person who is the store’s owner. Bring your wallet because you will definitely end up purchasing something. Thirty minute of her pleasant time and assistance and look: “I am happy to share my story. How’s that for unintended advertising?”



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A Lifetime Supply of Loyalty

Thursday, September 26th, 2013


What is it like to win an unlimited supply of something?

“My grandfather ate Corn Flakes every single day of his life after he got back from WWII. He was a man of routine.

Every. Single. Day. If he was on vacation he’d bring it with him in the mini-packs.

Late in his life, he decided to write a letter to kellogg’s telling them just how much he loved their cereal and how appreciative he was to have enjoyed it his whole life. In return, they sent him (effectively) a lifetime supply”
This excerpt from a recent Quora post shows that for the winner, not much changes – the grandfather ate Corn Flakes all his life and after winning continued to do so. But more interesting is the lesson illustrated here. The money your most loyal customers spend is of secondary importance to the value they add to your brand by championing your business.

Why else would Kellogg’s give their product away for free to someone who otherwise would have kept spending money on Corn Flakes for the rest of his life? They must have known that the grandpa wouldn’t take his lifetime supply into a cave and tell no one. On the contrary, he told his family, his friends and all his colleagues around the water cooler. And now you are reading about it on the worlds largest watercooler – the Internet.

Now should you go ahead and start awarding your best restaurant customers lifetime supplies of free meals? Unless you’re McDonalds, hell no! The economics of a tactic like this don’t make sense for most restaurants. Instead ask yourself how you can elicit a lifetime of loyalty from these customers. The value of the people they tell, the love they show on social networks, positive reviews they give on sites like Yelp or even friends and new customers that they bring in with them, dwarfs the money that they spend themselves in your restaurant.

For example, a recent study done by UC Berkeley shows that a “a half star rating increase (1 to 5 scale) meant a 19 percent greater likelihood that a restaurant’s seats would fill up during peak hours.”

Even your less than fanatic customers present a tremendous marketing opportunity over otherwise anonymous marketing channels. In Jay Conrad Levinson’s authoritative book on small-business marketing tactics, “Guerrilla Marketing,” he states “it costs six times more to sell a product or a service to a new customer than it does to an existing customer.” The path of least resistance to increased profits for your restaurants lies in marketing to and nurturing your relationships with these existing customers.

The value of your existing customers lies in what you know about them. The more you can learn about them, the more valuable they become to you. In the story at the beginning Kellogg’s knew the grandpa already loved their product so giving him a lifetime supply would yield a good return on their investment. Imagine giving someone a lifetime supply of something that they hated. Like pouring money into a black hole. But there are still ways to valuably remarket to the customers that aren’t yet giving you 5 star Yelp reviews.

Remarketing provides a way to target a group of people who are willing to spend money eating out, already like a particular type of food and are driving distance away from your business. Worded this way, most restaurants would jump at the opportunity to throw their marketing dollars at such a segment, and yet marketing to their existing customers is so often overlooked!

Compare the targeted approach to a recently broadcast radio advertisement I heard for a steakhouse here in Austin, TX. We can use some back of the napkin math and assumptions to show how a lack of targeting bleeds value out of such a marketing activity. The funnel below illustrates how all the things that the steakhouse doesn’t know about the people listening to their ad (i.e. whether or not they eat meat), depreciates 99% of the value – right out the gates!


This isn’t to say that you don’t need marketing targeted at new customer acquisition, but it is foolish to think that your marketing relationship with your customer ends when you finally get them to step in the door. That is where it starts. Take a long term view of your restaurant’s success and nurture these relationships as they are your most valuable asset. In all your marketing and business activities you should consistently exude excellence and authenticity. Your customers will take note, and reward you tenfold.



About the Author

Brandon is the Chief Product Officer at TapSavvy, an Austin-based software company which offers restaurants tools to manage their reputation and grow their business.  Through the TapSavvy Web App restaurateurs get a real-time view of, and respond to what customers are saying in their restaurant – leveraging deep customer insight to improve operations, conduct staff evaluations and market their business more effectively. ”


Invisible Architecture: Encouraging design with all senses in mind

Monday, September 16th, 2013


Blog by Keith A. Simon, AIA, LEED AP, Owner of Ecotone Design Lab, LLC

Within the past few weeks I’ve experienced:

  • A pediatric doctor’s lobby that was so acoustically reverberant that it eliminated all privacy
  • A café that was so loud I had to raise my voice to speak with the person sitting next to me
  • A patient’s room where the unintelligible acoustics made it difficult for the nurse to articulate her recommendations
  • And a classroom where the sound experienced by the students varied from location to location.

According to recent studies (ASID, Oommen 2008, Lechner 2012), 70% of office workers believe their acoustic environment reduces their productivity, 60% of occupants in multi-family housing complexes complain about noise from their neighbors, and poorly designed acoustic environments reduce test scores, cause high blood pressure and stress levels, as well as increase conflict. These shocking statistics might not be so surprising when we consider that the majority of today’s architects could be described as occularcentric – that is, obsessed with aesthetics at the expense of performance and experience.

Sometimes users of a space complain enough and the Owner or stakeholders are sympathetic enough to address poor acoustics and remedy the situation. However, it is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that most of the time – the users simply deal with a bad situation. Here’s the crazy part – it is typically a relatively easy fix to improve the acoustic environment! All of the negative situations I described in the first paragraph were caused because the volume and geometry of the space coupled with overly reflective material selection created a reverberation time that was too long for the desired use of the space: speech. The solution would be to run a few calculations, select materials with appropriate sound-absorption characteristics and figure out where to locate them. Acoustic remedies for spaces can, but do not need to affect the aesthetics of the space itself. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a beautiful, high-performance, and affordable space? The dream is tangible.

This blog entry is the first in a series on invisible architecture. Look for future blog posts to cover design with the sense of touch (no veneers, bare feet), design with a sense of smell (careful how you specify plywood, commercial secrets learned from bakeries), and reactions from a tour of the newly designed campus at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired – with universal lessons learned for architecture.

Note: Keith Simon is a preferred architect with the Russell Consulting Group because of his brilliant yet sensible approach toward building design.  As with any clients we work with, our mission is to help them make long-term decisions that will save money, increase market share and minimize the cost of employee turn-over. Smart architectural design which goes beyond good looks should always be a part of this success strategy. 


Marketing Strategies and Customer Retention

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

What good is a business concept without advertising?

What good is advertising without returning customers?

And what good is success without a long term strategy?

Effective advertising needs to reach your intended market – it requires consideration for the ideal ingredients to make this happen.

Maintaining and growing customer share is a result of perceived value, great service and an engaged team who are there to serve

Success comes when you offer great products and services and as a result, the customer falls in love with you!

Now – you have built a solid model for growth – knowing how and where to grow is the next part that is both fun and tricky.

Lessons From JCP

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Recent business articles have covered the downward spiral of J.C Penney. A once dominant force in retail and consumer goods has been slipping in market share for several years. Thinking that they needed fresh direction they hired Ron Johnson, the former Senior VP in charge of retail operations with Apple. Applying the skills that worked for his former employer, he began by not only rebranding Penney’s but completely changed their marketing strategy and product lines.

Rather than a calendar full of sales events (as Penney customers had grown accustomed to), they began offering everyday low prices instead. Suddenly, the re-branded JCP found itself not only needing to attract new customers, but also maintaining the existing ones. At the end of Johnson’s disastrous experiment, JCP brought back their previous CEO whom he had originally replaced.

It seems that in spite of new branding, marketing and product strategies designed to attract younger buyers while retaining existing ones, nothing seemed to work. Why is this?

Twenty five years ago, when I was married to a JCP manager, she often fretted over how her company was making a grave mistake by having any excuse for a sale which was going to eventually come home to roost.
“They are setting themselves up to fail”, she would say, “because they are training the customers not to bother shopping until there is a sale.” “Nordstrom’s doesn’t do this she continued; and if they do, they won’t do it like this!” “Worst yet she added, with so many sales they are cheapening their brand.”

I could not have agreed with her more. As a result, I too became the kind of customer she dreaded because I never purchased anything until they had a sale. To me, the next nail was when they moved Christmas creep to the actual edge of summer! That was a big turn off and showed me a sort of desperation on their part.

Finally, I grew tired of not having adequate help. I call it the Sears – a –fying of Penney’s. No, help no buy. Simple as that JCP.
Too bad because many shoppers used to like them a lot!

So, what can be learned from this?

One, don’t offer customers something you cannot safely take away. Two, understand the difference between value shoppers and bottom feeders. Bottom feeders are never loyal, value shoppers are.
Three, if you’re going to get people in your store, then make sure you have an adequate trained staff to take care of them so they do have a great shopping experience and want to return.

Don’t play games with gimmicks. Be straight with your shoppers and either give them a price break without a gimmick or forget it.
Don’t appear to be desperate or greedy. This Christmas creep business annoys a lot of people. And finally, do a better job at finding out what your customers really want instead of thinking that you know what they want.