How To Stay in Business 20 Years


When Lou Gerstner took the helm of a foundering IBM back in the 1990s, he famously remarked, “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” I’m going to join Lou out on that limb and say, “The last thing a new entrepreneur needs is a brand.”

Lou was right, and he turned the company around in short order.

Me? My company is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this week, and never did I bother myself about a “brand.”

When I incorporated Executive Media on September 1, 1995, I didn’t think I would be in business 20 years later—serving three prestigious clients on both coasts.

My company offered professional services that corporate executives applied in communicating with their various constituencies:

  • Keynote, issue and motivational speeches, along with graphic and video support
  • Concept, scripting and production of video programs for sales and marketing support, corporate vision and identity and culture change
  • Hands-on creative, scripting and production of product launches, sales rallies, employee and customer events, press conferences, analyst and management conferences and board of directors meetings

I modeled Executive Media as a virtual organization—mom and pop orchestrating a network of talented people, none on staff, so I could minimize overhead and also sleep better at night. I bought into what Jeff Bezos says of Amazon: “If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large.”

And I was always available to my clients. I once won a multi-million-dollar all-hands meeting because I wrote a proposal while “vacationing” in Egypt. I followed the style of Bill Gates: “I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one.”

The result was an enviable client list that included:

Avaya … Cadence Design Systems ... Cisco … Citrix … Digital Equipment Corporation ... Fujitsu … General Motors … Hewlett-Packard … Hitachi … Humana … IBM … Infineon … IEEE ... Lexmark … Lucent … Motorola … Polaroid … Polycom … Siemens ... Symantec … US Airways

By 2014, almost 78 percent of private-sector business establishments founded in 1995—the year I launched my company—were gone. I was stunned to discover this from “Entrepreneurship and the U.S. Economy” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

During the past two decades, I’ve been there for each fad du jour that was supposed to better support an organization’s mission: ISO, BPR, CRM. Now it’s branding. 

But there's a holy trinity of fundamentals that endure:

Stay demanding: Google Co-founder Larry Page made it a tenet to “always deliver more than expected.” You won’t be able to do that unless you demand more of yourself than everybody else.

Stay current: I engage in incessant learning to immerse myself in new thinking. “The most dangerous poison is the feeling of achievement,” says IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. “The antidote is to every evening think what can be done better tomorrow.”

Stay humble: Learn from employees, vendors, clients—and competitors. “Don’t be cocky,” says Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. “There’s always someone better than you.”

I’ve seen a generation of clients change before my eyes, with Boomers mostly retired now and their babies running things.

But there’s at least one unexpected benefit of my being around so long. The new audiences haven’t heard the jokes I used in speeches I wrote for clients 20 years ago.

So have you heard the one about the traveling salesman who . . . .

In my next blog, “Taxing”

Read my newest book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, in print or Kindle from Amazon:

Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.

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