Dustin Klein

More than 800 years ago, medieval philosopher Maimonides outlined eight levels of charity, the greatest of which was supporting an individual in such a way that he or she becomes independent. In Maimonides’ view, support was defined as a gift or loan, entering into a partnership or simply helping that person find employment.

Few things are more powerful than philanthropy — especially when its end goal is to better the lives of others. These days, philanthropy, and corporate philanthropy specifically, has assumed a broader role in society.

Today, companies give back more strategically than ever before. They align themselves with nonprofits that foster missions they believe in. The wealthiest people on the planet have even coordinated the Giving Pledge (www.givingpledge.org), where they’ve committed to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

At last count, more than 115 people had taken the pledge. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates may be the most prominent names on the list, but others include Spanx Founder Sara Blakely, Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert, Progressive’s Peter Lewis and Netflix Founder Reed Hastings.

Last month, one member, David Rubenstein, CEO and co-founder of The Carlyle Group, discussed the importance of philanthropy during a presentation at EY’s 2013 Strategic Growth Forum.

In his pledge letter, Rubenstein explains why: “I recognize to have any significant impact on an organization or cause, one must concentrate resources, and make transformative gifts — and to be involved in making certain those gifts actually transform in a positive way.”

One way Rubenstein is being transformative is through “Patriotic Philanthropy.” He has given $10 million to help restore President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home and underwrote renovations to the historic Washington Monument. Yet Rubenstein’s most noteworthy initiative is the whopping $23 million to acquire a rare copy of the Magna Carta, ensuring it remained in the United States. After its purchase, Rubenstein gifted it to the National Archives.

Not everyone has Rubenstein’s vast resources. But every organization and any individual can make their own impact.

In the workplace, for example, organizations that give back elevate their status perception-wise among competitors and peers. It doesn’t take much. But by being a company that cares, prospective employees want to work for you. For your existing team, deliberate and well-organized corporate philanthropy programs quickly take on a life of their own, becoming a rallying point.

Think strategically and get started by finding your cause. We all have them. They exist at our very core, forming the belief system we live by every day. So why shouldn’t our philanthropy follow that same course? Consider aligning your giving or volunteerism with something you personally believe in or care about; something that fits with what your company does or something that is close to your employees’ hearts.

Most important, get involved and just make a difference. It really comes down to that. One initiative that has always impressed me has been the annual CreateAthon event undertaken by WhiteSpace Creative, a member of the Pillar Award class of 2005. You can read a first-hand account of this year’s program here.

Being a good corporate citizen goes well beyond making good business sense. When you align yourself with causes you care about, whether big or small, you make a difference in someone’s life. And the bottom line is this: It is all of our duties to get involved. It’s no longer a question of if, but rather of what, when and how. ●


Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7026.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:26

Is your next big thing built to last?

My 7-year-old son Cole recently gave me a Rainbow Loom bracelet, which is made of linked rubber bands. It is today’s school-age children’s craze, and Novi, Michigan-based Choon’s Design LLC is churning out the kits at a record pace.

With more than 1 million units sold in the last 24 months, Rainbow Loom is the brainchild of Choon Ng, a former Nissan crash safety engineer who invented it while working on a craft project for his daughters.

And Rainbow Loom, it turns out, isn’t its original name. When it was created, it was called Twistz Bandz.

Timing is everything, and Twistz Bandz may have sounded a bit too much like Silly Bandz — the last “wrist” craze that swept the nation. Between November 2008 and early 2011, every school-age child in sight was wearing layer upon layer of Silly Bandz on their wrists. It was as hot a product as anything since Beanie Babies.

Twistz Bandz’s arrival, it seems, happened just as Silly Bandz ran into what every hot new product eventually faces: competition. Look-a-likes with similar-sounding names began flooding the market. They were cheaper, and you could buy them more readily at more retail locations. The core brand quickly diluted. So Ng did what any smart businessperson would: He changed the dynamics of the situation.

Thus, Rainbow Loom was born.

Enter social media

Within a few months, the product — which allows its young owners to custom-create bracelets — was gaining attention. Much of this was due to a full-tilt social media blitz, including videos on YouTube and an engaging Facebook page, where users could share their designs.

More recently, Ng has become vigilant in protecting his patent and U.S. trademark — battling all wannabe competitors from launching similar-sounding products and flooding the market to dilute his own brand.

His success — or failure — is yet-to-be determined. But his efforts will prove fruitless if he’s not already looking ahead to the next product. This is the dirty little secret to any hot toy craze and the core dilemma every business leaders faces: How do you remain relevant as consumers’ wants, needs and desires ebb and flow — sometimes as swiftly as the wind changes direction. 

Get beyond being a fad

Success in business relies upon building a sustainable operation that will outlast any cyclical “must have” product explosion.

There needs to be the creation of an idea continuum — an innovation factory, if you will. Innovative leaders must review, measure and adapt a company’s products, services and solutions to the changing whims of the marketplace. You need to talk to customers, vendors and prospects. And you need to regularly take the pulse of the market.

If you haven’t taken at least some of the gains from today’s success and invested it into research and development for tomorrow, you’re already losing ground. Today is today, and just like the disclaimers for financial investing warn — past performance does not indicate future results.

In the end, the only thing that matters is this: Is your next big thing built to last? Or, like every other craze that’s every hit the market, will your opportunities to remain relevant long into the future fade away after the competition creeps in and dilutes your market? ●


Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7026.

The greatest baseball game I ever saw was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. The Minnesota Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves 1-0 in a 10-inning nail bitter, adding an exclamation point to what many consider the best World Series ever played.

In that deciding game, Twins’ ace Jack Morris gave one of the gutsiest pitching performances in baseball history — scattering 7 hits over 10 scoreless innings while throwing a staggering 126 pitches.

Morris, who in 1994 spent a short stint with the Cleveland Indians, spent nearly 3 1/2 hours on one of the world’s grandest stages and barely broke a sweat. From first pitch to last, he relentlessly attacked Atlanta’s hitters. Whenever a batter reached base, he dug in his heels and adjusted his approach.

One of the things I love most about baseball is the strategy that unfolds during a game. It’s fascinating to watch as the players make adjustments throughout the game as the situations change.

Morris’ performance, as well as the entire 1991 World Series, demonstrates a close correlation between effective adjustments and victory. In the business world, this same ability to swiftly adapt to marketplace fluctuations often means the difference between success and failure. Newton’s Third Law of Motion offers one reason why: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

And though Newton lived long before the Grand Old Game arose, he had the right idea: In business, like in baseball, those who react best win. Adjustments, however, aren’t made in a vacuum. Success depends on two equally important pieces — a leader and a team. The leader has four responsibilities: Develop the game plan; lay out a vision for success; achieve buy-in by inspiring others to step up and follow; and execute on the plan. In baseball, this role falls to the pitcher. In business, that often means the CEO or another senior executive.

The team also must effectively play defense behind the pitcher. They need to collectively grind out base hits on offense and score a few runs — at least one more than the other guys. Victory represents having the ever-so-slightest edge on your opponent. It isn’t necessary to engineer a massacre to secure the W.

As the innings pass, the plan requires continuous adjustment. The leader’s tactics need to be tweaked so they better address what’s happening at any given moment.

Trust is just as important. A leader must trust the team to do its job, especially when that job looks more like a curveball than a straight fastball. And in return, the team must trust its leader to make the right adjustments at the right time.

But just like Morris grinding it out inning-after-inning, batter-after-batter, if you want to make successful adjustment in business, you have to know your end goal. And then, make sure your focus is clear and accept nothing less than success. By doing so, you can rally your team to rise to the occasion and make adjustments.

Then, maybe, just maybe, your organization will end up winning its own version of a World Series ring. ●


Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations of Smart Business Network, publishers of Smart Business magazine. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.comor (440) 250-7026.

Twitter:  @DustinSKlein 


Legend has it that in 1505, shortly after Michelangelo’s David was placed at the main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, Pope Julius II marveled at its brilliance and questioned the artist about how the masterpiece was created.

As the story goes, Michelangelo responded, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Whether this conversation actually happened is anybody’s guess, but the exchange provides a glimpse into the mind of a genius who could see what others could not.

Today, similar visionaries populate the landscape. In the business world, they often manifest themselves in the form of entrepreneurs.

One of the greatest skill sets that entrepreneurs possess is the ability to balance calculated risk-taking with a dogged pursuit of ideas they believe will succeed. This is combined with a passion for the solutions, products and services being offered, and a keen understanding of the marketplace. Entrepreneurs have a very good sense of what people will or will not buy, and are willing to continuously tweak their solutions to adapt to changing needs, wants and desires.

But draw back the curtain a bit more and you’ll find that an entrepreneur’s real mystique lies elsewhere. It is his or her mysterious sixth sense used for noticing gaps in the marketplace that others fail to see. It is the ability to understand the gap and develop effective solutions that fill it.

Thirty years ago, who could have predicted how ubiquitous smartphones would be?

Sure, if you watched episodes of Star Trek in the 1960s you noticed those nifty communicators that Captain Kirk and his crew used. They not-too-surprisingly look like the early flip phones of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But today’s smartphone — essentially a pocket computer that packs so much power — required a different kind of vision, much like Michelangelo seeing the angel in the marble.

Most of the savviest entrepreneurs I know go through life looking at what will be once you remove everything that doesn’t belong. They see opportunities to create markets where markets do not or have not existed. Their efforts, and vision for what could be, fuel the economy and create jobs.

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, however. Even the best ideas often fail. Depending on which source you believe, as many as nine out of every 10 new business start-ups won’t make it to year three.

Two other factors play critical roles in bringing what you see to life — timing and people.

Having the right idea at the wrong time can doom even the most passionate of efforts. And if you don’t surround yourself with smart and capable people who complement both your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll either swiftly run out of bandwidth or be unable to effectively execute on the ideas.

All of which brings us back to the idea of vision.

How important is vision and this mysterious ability to see what’s not there?

It is the true crux of success. Vision is knowing what’s needed for the right market at the right time at the right price point. It is understanding through which channels the solutions need to be delivered. And it is recognizing how to best amplify an idea so you can reach as large an audience of potential consumers as possible and maximize revenue opportunities

Michelangelo summed up his artistic philosophy simply:  “Every block of stone has a statue inside it. It is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

As entrepreneurs, the question is therefore straightforward:  How will you discover the next great business idea? And more important, can it have as lasting an impact as David?

Thursday, 06 June 2013 11:29

When the customer isn’t right

Every year for the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege of hearing executives from many of the region’s top organizations passionately explain how they deliver world-class customer service. And every year, I’ve come away from this experience armed with new ideas.

This year, one idea posited gave me pause. At the same time, however, it reaffirmed one of my long-held beliefs that seems diametrically opposed to the usual mantra, “The customer is always right.”

In describing their competitive advantage, two executives cited their ability to effectively tell clients what they don’t want to hear. They reset conventional wisdom and succinctly explain to clients why what they believe to be correct often isn’t. And then, they offer better solutions. This, they said, is one reason why they have prospered.

Think about this. With the exception of trusted advisers — typically lawyers, accountants and bankers, people whom we intentionally pay to set us straight — nearly everyone else we contract with is given the expectation that we want what we want, when we want it and sometimes even how we want it done.

On the surface, telling your clients “No” flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But in reality, it makes perfect sense.

Take, for example, these two entrepreneurs. They assigned a key business success metric to telling clients “No” and then explaining why they should do something they may not want to do or are simply reluctant to incorporate. They believe that the best customer service delivery may contradict a client’s wishes. But, at the same time, it provides a better solution that will lead to even greater success — and higher client satisfaction.

A critical element of any top-notch customer service initiative is showing clients you truly care about them. You can’t give this lip service. Your actions must be real. Demonstrate a genuine desire to forge and foster a real partnership and the client will recognize whatever solutions — or services — you provide are developed because you truly believe they are what are best for the client’s organization.

Isn’t this the essence of what your clients and customers pay you for — to provide them with the best possible solution for their business pain point?

One of my friends has fired dozens of clients because they refused to listen to advice they paid him to provide or failed to incorporate solutions they paid him to create — all of which were designed to fix systematic problems with their businesses that they didn’t see. His reasoning was straightforward: Why partner with a company that you know is going to fail because their management team is already set on a solution that won’t work?

Experience painfully taught him that the end result is always the same: Clients will still blame you for their own mistakes — even if they choose that direction instead of the one you provide them with. When that happens, they say you weren’t forceful enough in selling them on your solution or that you didn’t adequately warn them they would fail.

The bottom line here is simple:  Anyone can turn service delivery into a commodity. Just become an order taker. But only a select few can think differently about customer service. Those that truly understand the value of pointing out when a client is wrong in his or her assertions, and is willing to risk the loss of business in order to do what’s right for that client, will more often than not succeed. Better yet, they will gain a lifetime of trust.

Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations of SBN Interactive, publishers of Smart Business magazine. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7026.

Sunday, 31 March 2013 20:00

Face-to-face: A lost art?

We spend a lot of time these days networking through social media channels. It’s safe to say we live in a fully connected, digital age.

If you dive deeper, year-over-year, the percentage of executives who “connect” in ways other than face-to-face continues to grow at an alarmingly quick rate. There are many who believe we are on the cusp of having an entire generation of businesspeople who will never gain — or practice — the art of in-person networking?

That would be a shame. Social channel networking certainly expands one’s opportunities to build a wide network, but the limitations of virtual networking also preclude establishing very deep relationships.

The reality is that few things can replace the power of meeting someone face-to-face and having a good, old-fashioned conversation at a networking event, power breakfast or luncheon. Body language is important in the business world; it often provides the edge in understanding what someone means rather than just what someone says.

And social networking doesn’t provide the opportunity to engage in more meaningful conversations, where the ability to ask questions, listen and then ask follow-up questions can lead to unearthing business opportunities that social networking just doesn’t reveal.

The bottom line: Conversation is powerful. If you know how to talk with people instead of talk to them your business opportunities may just become limitless. And in a world where you can communicate virtually with hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of people each day, businesses are really built one client and one relationship at a time.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 19:23

Accelerated change

Each year, as I prepare for our annual Evolution of Manufacturing event, I embark on a deep dive into the issues affecting American manufacturers.

There’s little doubt we operate in a global economy, where the same basic economic factors of supply, demand and pricing affect all manufacturers, no matter their location. However, several elements that American manufacturers must deal with distinguish them from their global brethren.

First, American manufacturers are being squeezed at an accelerated pace never seen before. Prices are down. Service standards and customer expectations are up. And the demands of quicker turnaround times are on the rise as well. Further, American manufacturers must increase production levels using fewer employees and less overtime in order to effectively compete.

These new global realities extend beyond the manufacturing realm and are reflected in the slower-than-expected economic recovery — represented by lagging pace of employment growth and only gradual reduction of the national unemployment rate. Simply put, the future American manufacturing work force will look and operate much differently than it did just five years ago.

My deep dive included visits to manufacturing facilities in industries as diverse as snack foods, steel, personal care products and labels. Despite any obvious differences based on products and methodology, several commonalities stood out.

Chiefly among them is the pressure by customers for greater quality at a better price. Big-box retailers, such as Walmart and Target, have accumulated such immense purchasing power that they’re effectively able to dictate their own payment price. This has done little to help American manufacturers get their expenses in line.

Next, American manufacturers must be more agile in all aspects of operations. While forward-thinking activities like forecasting and planning will always remain, there will be more of an emphasis on quickly identifying quality problems, supply shortages and demand shifts. Manufacturers will no longer have the luxury of these being lagging indicators they can analyze after the fact. They must monitor them in near-real time and be able to act accordingly.

Finally, underlying all of this is the grim realization that the hangover from the Great Recession of 2008 will continue to linger far into the future. And that, it seems, means more changes are on the way. Those who understand and are willing and able to adapt will do well. The others will just simply fade away.

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Talent attraction

With no disrespect to former President Clinton’s once-famous mantra, the most pressing issue facing American CEOs today isn’t the economy, it’s people.

Nearly every CEO or business owner I know pines about the challenges they face finding good, qualified employees to add to their staff. And once they find them, they’re even more concerned about how to keep them.

It’s no secret that retaining high performers is an ongoing process with no magic formula. A study of more than 16,000 employees nationwide by the Washington, D.C.-based research center Leadership IQ found that a startling 47 percent of high performers are actively looking for other jobs. That means they are posting and submitting resumes, and even going on interviews, often on your company’s time.

Compounding this are two other troubling bits of data. First, the problem appears to be generational. Sixty-one percent of recent college graduates say they expect to stay with their first employer for no more than three years. And from a slightly broader perspective, only 30 percent of workers between the ages of 21 and 30 say they would strongly recommend their current organization as a “good place to work.”

What’s truly disturbing is the second piece of data. While top talent packs their bags in anticipation of leaving, their counterparts at the other end of the performance pole are putting away their suitcases and settling in for the long haul. A meager 18 percent of low-performing employees say they are actively seeking other jobs, while only 25 percent of middle performers are actively hunting so-called greener pastures.

So what can you do to ensure you’re attracting and retaining the best and brightest people and aren’t either a leap pad for top performers or a repository for mediocrity?

Plenty, and it all starts with investing in your people and building an organization with a culture that screams, “I care about my employees.”

To better understand how Northeast Ohio CEOs are doing this, Smart Business has teamed up ERC to conduct our eighth annual Workplace Practices Survey. Take the survey online at www.sbnon-line.com/workplace and tell us how you approach work force issues. The results, along with an analysis of the state of human resources in Northeast Ohio, will be published in our August 2008 edition.

Contact Editor Dustin Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com