Atlanta (1302)

After four years, the inability to manage change often results in the premature demise of 37 percent of information industry startups.

John Marshall, co-founder of AirWatch, sees the validity of that statement, but relishes in the fact that his company isn’t a part of the statistic. It’s a modern day miracle that a small firm like AirWatch has not only endured, but found a way to ride the crest of the technology tsunami.

“Coming up with a good idea is hard, but executing it is even harder,” says Marshall, who is also president and CEO. “You need to have the right team with the right vision and strike a balance between ideas and execution or you’ll never get out of the gate.”

After bootstrapping AirWatch since its launch in 2003, Marshall orchestrated what he describes as a strong pivot three years ago. His well-timed pivot gave AirWatch the opportunity to cash-in on the “bring your own device” to work trend, establishing the firm as a pioneer in the management of mobile assets.

The BYOD craze was rearing its head — almost 70 percent of workers who own a smartphone or tablet use it to access corporate data, according to Ovum. The problem is that most IT departments were caught off-guard by the mobile computing frenzy and lacked the staff and systems to securely manage a barrage of different employee-owned devices.

AirWatch has taken the lead in mobile management, scoring more than $200 million in funding and adding more than 1,400 employees to provide mobile device management and security to 8,000 customers, including Lowe’s, Toyota, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Here’s a look at how Marshall turned a rather unremarkable Wi-Fi service provider into a market leader with revenues of about $100 million in 2012.


Catch a wave

Once Marshall decided to consider the mobility space, he made sure his decision was neither rash nor fortuitous. He evaluated data and anecdotal evidence before asking 15 developers to create an enterprise program to manage smartphones.

“The key to market timing is to look at everything,” he says. “I keep a lot of data points in my head. I not only assessed user adoption rates, but whether the cab driver in Singapore was using a smartphone. Misreading the adoption curve can be fatal, especially for a small tech company.”

For instance, Marshall knew that wireless service providers were switching to 3G networks and offering “all-you-can-eat data” plans as users became addicted to mobile devices. In addition, businesses were looking for new ways to lower costs and create efficiencies as the economy was taking a nosedive in 2008-2009.

Providing 24/7 access to data and communications seemed like a viable and affordable way to boost worker productivity. Marshall, however, remained on the fence until a fateful conversation with an Apple executive provided the tipping point. The knowledgeable source described the ongoing development of smartphones and tablets and the migration from desktops and laptops to mobile computing. So when Apple released iOS 3, Marshall decided it was time to act.

“My conversation with the Apple executive gave me the confidence to move forward,” Marshall says. “The ecosystem was forming and I could see that it would be maturing over the next few years. I wanted to be ahead of the wave, not paddling from behind.

“You need to understand the growth phase to take advantage of it,” he says. “Invest too early, and you’ll spend all of your time educating the customer. Invest too late, and you’ll be forced to play catch-up. In this case, our timing was just about right.”


Build a nimble organization

While amassing information before taking an initiative is important, the project needs to advance once it is ripe. Check your company’s foundation and feel confident it can handle change.

AirWatch’s infrastructure functions like a bumper car. When change occurs, employees absorb the shock, reposition and step on the gas.

“You can’t labor over decisions or shoot for perfection when you’re in a hurry; you need to get a product out the door,” Marshall says. “You can’t be afraid to make changes or give stuff away during the early phases of development. It’s a stressful and somewhat lonely time, but you have to push forward.”

AirWatch has a fairly flat organizational structure because Marshall believes that hierarchical decision-making begets fiefdoms and impairs speed-to-market.

“Ambiguity and management by committee won’t work when you need to move quickly,” Marshall says. “It’s better to fail fast and fail early.”

He filters and communicates competitor intelligence or feedback from AirWatch’s early adopters to the company’s core leadership team on a weekly basis.

“You can’t communicate everything to 1,500 people or everyone will head off in a thousand different directions,” he says. “I strategically share information with our core management team, and they pass it along. We use concentric circles to transmit critical information.”

Marshall’s finely honed communications strategy helps his team develop what he calls a tactical cadence to clients’ evolving needs. For instance, initially customers wanted a tool to manage mobile devices, but data security soon emerged as a top priority as companies created a plethora of mobile applications.

“We don’t waste a lot of time in meetings because we constantly communicate,” Marshall says. “Our product developers, marketers and other team members sit together on the floor. They collaborate, white board issues, make quick decisions and write new code. Eighty percent of our product changes are ad hoc.”

The company’s 400 developers utilize a rapid application development methodology and release product updates every two weeks. In fact, the entire company is built around the notion of two-week sprints that keep staffers from working too far ahead.

“We’re experts at executing course corrections; it’s woven into our DNA,” he says. “It may seem like organized chaos, but it’s a natural movement for us that works.”


Stay focused

It’s easy to veer off course when you inject 1,300 new employees into a dynamic work environment over a span of two to three years. But through trial and error, Marshall has developed a comprehensive plan to keep AirWatch workers aligned with the company’s vision.

“If you bring someone on too early, they won’t have enough to do, and they’ll end up working on things that aren’t strategic,” he says. “I’ve learned that you need to hire at the right time and clearly define roles and responsibilities to make sure everyone’s working on the right product at the right time.”

For example, Marshall says he met the perfect candidate to launch a European division, but AirWatch wasn’t ready to expand. Instead, he focused on building the North American market and refining the company’s solution suite while waiting three years to extend an offer.

“He would have failed if I hired him when we first met,” Marshall says. “I waited until the time was right and now we have 270 people working in our European division.”

Also, his recruiting team has improved its success rate for new hires by assessing a candidate’s ability to thrive in a fast-paced environment. Then, they quash ambiguity and foster line-of-sight from the outset by putting new hires through an intense two- to three-week training course.

Every AirWatch employee knows how daily activities align with the broader mission, Marshall says. In addition, employees have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, which is the secret to keeping people focused during periods of rapid change and growth.

“One of the things I borrowed from Steve Jobs was the concept of the ‘directly responsible individual’ or DRI, which is critical to managing growth,” Marshall says. “Under DRI there’s a point person responsible for solving every problem or driving every initiative to completion.”

Apple summons speed and accountability by inserting the name of the DRI next to every item on a to-do list, Marshall says. As a result, there’s rarely any confusion about who should be doing what.

Also, Marshall prevents scope creep, which can be the nemesis of tech firms that develop cutting edge products for rapidly evolving markets.

“Don’t let one customer get you off track,” Marshall says. “Learn to say no to requests for customized products or one-off solutions that deviate from your broader mission. You have to know what you want to be when you grow up; otherwise it’s easy to lose your way.”

Finally, he waited until the time was right to pursue strategic acquisitions. For instance, AirWatch acquired Motorola Solutions Mobility Services Platform last June, adding some 1,500 customers to the firm’s portfolio.

“You can’t integrate another firm or technology platform when your company or team isn’t mature; it’s a recipe for failure.” Marshall says. “We waited until we had 1,200 employees and a mature management team before consummating an acquisition. And we got there by being crisp, focused and developing one product at a time.”



  • Develop a great sense of timing.
  • Build a flexible organization.
  • Focus is the key to sustaining growth.


The Marshall File

Name: John Marshall
Title: President, CEO and co-founder
Company: AirWatch

Birthplace: Racine, Wis., and raised in Charlotte, N.C. 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I started cutting lawns when I was 9 or 10, grew the business, and had anywhere from five to 15 people working for me throughout high school and college. I learned that there’s no substitute for hard work, the importance of hiring the right people and why it’s critical to make course corrections, even as a small business. If you don’t hire reliable people, you’re not going to meet customer expectations, which is vital when you’re trying to build a business.

What’s the best business advice you ever received? One of my mentors told me that the grass is greener where you water it, which essentially means that any company can be successful. Now, you have to be aligned with a market that’s doing well and you have to execute, but if you do those things, every firm can succeed.

Who do you admire most in business and why? Steve Jobs because he was a pioneer in the mobility space and definitely understood the importance of market timing. He also built a flexible infrastructure that allowed him to capitalize on new ideas and changing product cycles.

Why is AirWatch based in Atlanta instead of Silicon Valley? Atlanta has a good economy and an ample talent pool. How can a small firm like AirWatch compete for talent against Facebook or Google? I would never start a tech firm in Silicon Valley.


AirWatch Social Media Links:

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How to reach: AirWatch (866) 501-7705 or

A rather gruesome quote has been attributed to Sean Parker, entrepreneur and Facebook’s first president: “Running a startup is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.”

While that analogy is certainly descriptive, it does ring true for many entrepreneurs. I find startups both energizing and exhausting, and I’d compare the thrill to the adrenaline rush a runner gets. In fact, it’s the rush that inspired me to jump into the startup arena after a foray into the corporate world. 

My path to entrepreneurship started in the least risky of ways. I went to the University of Waterloo for electrical engineering, and then I did what most Canadian engineers do, I went to work for one of the big guys — Nortel.

I quickly realized that I was a terrible engineer and found myself wondering more about product pricing, sales models and addressable markets. This curiosity didn’t go over too well with my manager, but definitely helped make me a better entrepreneur today.

Work with wicked smart people

The entrepreneurial path can be full of bumps and jumps. During the height of the dot-com craze, I had the great fortune to connect with a group of amazing entrepreneurs, and we founded Cbeyond. Over the course of 12 years at Cbeyond, the team experienced a lot of great and challenging times.

I learned a valuable lesson at Cbeyond — work with great people that do what they say they’re going to do, have a passion for serving customers and give back to their communities. You and your co-founders will spend every waking moment together, so make sure they’re the kind of people you want to hang out with at the airport bar.

Cbeyond survived the dot-com and telecom busts, completed an IPO in 2005 and grew to more than $450 million in revenue.

In early 2012, while an Entrepreneur in Residence at Georgia Tech, I met the partners for my new company, Springbot. We provide an e-commerce marketing platform to help smaller online retailers compete against giants like Inc. The growth of Springbot has been rewarding and has relied heavily on our team, committed investors and the great startup ecosystem in Atlanta. 

Tips from an experienced risk taker

When asked about starting a new business venture, I offer the following advice:

  • Avoid running alone. If you are considering diving headfirst into the entrepreneurial waters, run with a pack. The aforementioned “rush” is 10 times better.
  • Avoid naysayers, doubters and those who say that being a technology entrepreneur is too risky. Perhaps that’s their reality. But, I say that the real risk is never discovering what makes you happy. Ask “why” three times. The answers will guide you.
  • Entrepreneurship is not for everyone but it can be great.
  • Starting a business is a rewarding and exhilarating experience that requires a ton of work, dedication and risk-taking. Given the recent challenges at Nortel and BlackBerry, however, it certainly looks like being a technology entrepreneur may not be as risky as the more traditional and so-called “safe” route — plus being a technology entrepreneur certainly beats working for a living. ● 

Brooks Robinson is co-founder and CEO of Springbot, a technology start-up that leverages big data and marketing automation to deliver an e-commerce marketing platform for smaller online businesses. He can be reached at





Summer may be over, but the trend of Americans working while on vacation is only beginning. Regardless of the industry, it can be difficult for employees to balance responsibilities to employers and customers, and a much-needed break from work.

Our team at PGi recently surveyed our customers about their relationship to the office while on vacation. One of the most eye-opening findings was that 82 percent of employees check in with the office at least once a day while on vacation.

The topic of “workation” has been widely debated in recent months. In reality, there is no one right answer for all jobs and all employees, but there are factors each individual must weigh when considering whether to work while on vacation.

Some positives to checking in while away:

Peace of mind

The purpose of a vacation is to relax and recharge, but many employees cannot simply flip a switch when they walk out the door. Instead, that last report they sent their boss or the project their team is advancing stays on their mind for a couple of days.

For many, a quick glance at their email from a smartphone to see that projects are advancing and your customers are happy can provide peace of mind and allow you to truly unplug. 

Technology increases vacations

Technology can empower many employees to take a longer vacation than would have otherwise been possible. That Friday afternoon meeting can be taken from a smartphone or a video conference with a customer can be handled from a laptop or tablet while waiting for a flight. 

Higher productivity and less stress

Studies have shown that getting out of the office can lower stress levels and workations help avoid the dreaded “vacation inbox.” By plugging in for short bursts of productivity, employees remain included in new business opportunities, critical client interactions and projects, rather than spending the first couple of days back at the office playing catch-up. 

However, those who want a more traditional work/life balance dread workations and think they can lead to the following: 

An increase in workload

According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, more than one third of employed Americans report feeling that working from vacation increases their workload. The respondents also say workations make it more difficult for them to stop thinking about work during their time away. 

A higher burnout rate

Staying on top of work increases the chance of burnout. Even the most dedicated employee needs to unplug from time to time. If they never have the chance to do so, the next time they leave the office, may be for good. 

Setting a precedent for work/life boundaries

While an employee may not mind sending a short email or taking a quick call when on vacation, they may have concerns about setting a precedent. Concerned employees need to maintain open communication with colleagues and customers to ensure work does not encroach on their vacation time.

No matter which side of the debate you fall on, it’s clear that working on vacation is an increasingly common practice in today’s connected world. As we approach the winter holidays, identify which camp you fall into and plan appropriately to ensure you find a balance that lets you enjoy your vacation. 

Sean O’Brien is executive vice president of strategy and communications for PGi, a global leader in collaboration and virtual meetings for more than 20 years. Visit


Twitter: @PGi
Twitter: @seanobr
LinkedIn: (company)

Carpet made from discarded fishing nets? It may sound far-fetched, but not to John Wells, president and CEO of Interface Americas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Interface Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet tile.

The company recently launched an eco-friendly collection made from recycled Philippine fishing nets, thanks to a newfound penchant for risk-taking, innovation and social responsibility.

“We see innovation as a way to lower our manufacturing costs, give customers the products they want and reduce our environmental impact,” Wells says. “It’s a way of doing business — not a stand-alone initiative.”

If you think carpet manufacturers and environmentalists make strange bedfellows, you’d be right. The carpet industry has garnered criticism for its environmental footprint based on widespread use of petroleum and fossil fuels in manufacturing and the fact that some 5 billion pounds of carpet and padding end up in U.S. landfills every year.

Interface’s epiphany and massive mid-course correction started in the mid-1990s when its late founder, Ray C. Anderson, acknowledged the industry’s errant ways and vowed to eliminate any negative impact on the environment from its operations by 2020.

In Interface’s case, viewing the carpet manufacturing process through a green lens has led to an expansion of ideas, profits, cost savings and new markets.

“In many respects, innovation has become a survival strategy for us because we’re not a low-price, commodity player,” Wells says. “It’s led to reductions in operating costs and greater value for our customers, which is critical when you make a high quality product.”

Forty-nine percent of the company's raw materials are now recycled or biobased, and the company has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent. And since eco-friendliness is now a priority for about 65 percent of carpet shoppers, Interface Americas has been able to expand its reach by introducing more sustainable product lines.

Wells, whose U.S., Canada and Latin America operations account for $575 million of Interface’s $932 million in annual revenues, has been instrumental in directing the company’s mid-course correction and fulfilling Anderson’s promise.

Here’s how the industry veteran reinvented Interface Americas by focusing on footprint reduction, innovation and cultural change.


Build an innovation framework

A company’s culture has a profound impact on business innovation. The key to success? Deliberately shaping the environment to inspire creativity and invite risk-taking across the enterprise.

“Culture is critical to innovation, and it exists whether you do anything to influence it or not,” Wells says. “Executives have to lead the way by being intentional in their actions as part of a comprehensive and orchestrated effort to foster creativity.”

Wells and the Interface executive team studied the philosophies of author and researcher Marcus Buckingham and extensive research from the Gallup organization before deciding that a strengths-based culture would provide the ideal framework to encourage innovation.

In a nutshell, the strengths-based concept promotes the idea that people get the best results by recognizing and maximizing their strengths while downplaying their weaknesses or perceived deficiencies.

“We all have inborn talents,” Wells says. “Our managers are charged with drawing those out as part of our strengths-based development program. It helps our people maximize their talents and from what we’ve seen, it’s driving results.”

Furthermore, strengths-based hiring debunks the idea that creativity is limited to engineers. Workers are hired for their strengths, placed into roles that leverage their talents and assigned to teams based on an inventory of their personal assets. As a result, all employees — from managers to shipping clerks — across the Interface enterprise are involved in the quest for new and better ways to manufacture and distribute carpet.

“The journey toward change starts with a vision and a mission statement; ours is ‘Mission Zero,’” Wells says. “It creates engagement by giving our workers a sense of purpose. They honestly believe that they can change the world.”

For instance, Interface's assistant vice president of co-innovation became so enthralled with the idea of recycling Philippine fishing nets that she developed the Net Effect concept, engaged conservationist groups in the pilot and helped develop the new product line.

Finally, the Interface executive team invited cultural change by developing “Play to Win” training, which teaches employees to view sustainability as a challenge, not a threat, and encourages them to change their thinking and behavior to foster individual and collective success.

“We changed our culture by changing what people do every day,” Wells says. “Our employees don’t see themselves as manufacturing carpet; they see themselves as making a difference, and that’s weaving innovation into our DNA.”


Encourage risk-taking

Champions of organizational innovation must demonstrate enthusiasm for risk-taking and foster a penalty-free environment. But too many mistakes may give executives cold feet, especially when they have to please fashion-conscious customers such as architects and designers who live on the cutting edge of trends.

Wells developed a three-pronged strategy that encourages risk-taking by creating safeguards that take the sting out of failure.

“You tend to have more failures when you develop products or ideas in silos,” he says. “We give people a common goal and utilize blended or cross-functional teams to keep people from competing against each other or having to grapple with divergent interests when developing new products or green manufacturing processes.”

Next, he installed a mass customization production system in Interface Americas’ U.S. plants. That way, the company can offer customers a wide array of products and fill orders on demand, eliminating the pitfalls of inaccurate sales forecasting, overstocking or purchasing delays.

“We only expect a 20 percent take-up rate on new products,” Wells says. “But that’s OK, because we have the ability to manufacture product on demand so we don’t maintain large inventories. Ultimately, our production system lets us introduce more products because it gives us a fairly low investment on the front end.”

Finally, by narrowing the supply chain and creating more products from the same raw materials, he reduced the cost of beta testing. Having fewer feeder inputs hastens the product development process, lowers raw materials costs and makes it easy to fulfill specific customer requests.

“We’ve taken steps to facilitate risk-taking, but you really need to take a long view and test, test and retest before you launch a new product,” Wells says. “Otherwise, it’s easy to slip back into old habits when you fail.”


Farm innovation

A cultural shift is a work in progress, and to keep up the momentum, it’s a smart idea to utilize collaborative tools. Interface’s latest effort involves the sharing and development of ideas with diverse, global teams through the use of a social collaboration tool called Jive.

“We’re using an open architecture system to connect people in various capacities all around the globe,” Wells says. “It’s fascinating to see the energy it creates and the speed and execution of ideas as we discuss specific customer problems.”

Wells initiated the collaboration process by posing questions to a small group of participants through the tool. He slowly broadened the talent circle, organizing staffers into project teams and assigning them specific problems as discussions took on a life of their own.

“Online collaboration accelerates the innovation process because you can socialize ideas quickly, gauge feasibility and decide where to invest,” Wells says. “We’re able to solicit feedback from engineers, R&D, product development and sales people all over the world, which eliminates silos, hastens decision-making and reduces the risk of developing new products.”

Since the launch of “Mission Zero,” Interface Americas’ employees have developed the world’s first carbon neutral carpet, selling more than 204 million square yards, and retiring more than 2.9 million metric tons of verified emission reduction credits through 2012.

The company has reduced both the face weight and backing weight of its carpet tile products, decreased the amount of raw materials to produce a square yard of carpet by 10 percent and invented a glueless carpet tile installation system. In addition, seven of nine Interface factories now operate on renewable electricity while the plant in LaGrange is powered by methane gas harvested from a local landfill.

“Our mantra is to innovate and achieve our business goals but to do that through a lens of sustainability,” Wells says. “We’ve done it by changing our culture, using our talent to drive innovation and literally doing more while taking a whole lot less from the environment.”



  • Build an innovation framework to re-invent your culture.
  • Encourage risk-taking.
  • Farm innovation through online collaboration.


The Wells File

Name: John Wells
Title: President and CEO
Company: Interface Americas

Birthplace: Wells was born in Dalton, Ga., which is often called the carpet manufacturing capital of the U.S. Mills within a 65-mile radius of Dalton control more than 80 percent of the U.S. carpet market — which supplies 45 percent of the world’s carpet. 

Education: He received a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the Georgia Institute of Technology; he also completed the executive education program at UNC, Chapel Hill.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I did accounting and engineering work for a carpet manufacturer as part of a co-op program during college. They offered me a full-time position in R&D and product development after graduation, but I soon realized that I wasn’t wired to be an engineer. I moved into sales and was hired by Interface in 1994 as vice president of sales.

What was the best business advice you ever received? I was fortunate to work for a number of great managers early in my career. Those who developed their people to their greatest potential tended to be the most successful, so I make a habit of following their lead and their advice.

Who do you admire most in business and why? That would be Ray C. Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc. He was a beacon in the industry who had the courage to stand up and say we’re doing this all wrong. He launched the greening of the carpet manufacturing industry.

What is your definition of business success? For me, it’s the ability to combine financial success with a noble purpose. When a company meets its fiduciary and social responsibilities, then I believe it has achieved success.


How to reach: Interface Americas (800) 336-0225 or


Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:57

How top executives procure success

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Twelve years ago, EY decided to go global with its Entrepreneur Of The Year awards and establish the World Entrepreneur Of The Year program — and the results have been, shall we say, an international success. The conference, held annually in Monaco, features Entrepreneur Of The Year country winners competing for the World Entrepreneur Of The Year title.

Assembling business leaders from around the world in one place to be honored is a huge accomplishment — the wealth of experience, as well as the variety of successful leadership styles, is outstanding.

Here are some thoughts from the collection of the world’s most accomplished entrepreneurs — innovators, futurists, turnaround specialists and problem-solvers — about leadership styles. ●


“I built the company based on people, not on experience from before. They were willing to learn and try anything. We had a bunch of people who had never done this before. None of us had run companies. None of us had worked in high levels of companies. None of us were from Fortune 500s. Chobani not only became a business that grew, but Chobani was like a school to us, including myself.”

Hamdi Ulukaya

founder, president and CEO

Chobani Inc.

Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 United States

2013 Entrepreneur Of The World


“Early on, the business was centered on me, and I had to make all the decisions alone. Now I share those decisions with my 10 main directors. If there are differences in opinion, I make the last decision.

The other thing is that I have had to ensure that the people who are invited to work here are people with principles, values, integrity, responsibility and passion. If I don’t see a person with passion, they don’t hang around the company very long.”

Lorenzo Barrera Segovia

founder and CEO

Banco Base

Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Mexico


“I’m a very passionate person, which will never change. When you grow, you gain more experience and the kind of problems you face change. As you grow, you need to grow with your organization.”

Martin Migoya



Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Argentina


“In the startup days, you have to be very innovative, hire and retain talent, refine your business as you deploy in the marketplace, and you learn things from it. Today, with a solid track record of business success, I can focus on what’s next and think more strategic and long-term than you’re allowed to in the early days. My style has evolved as the business has matured.”

Jim Davis


Chevron Energy Solutions


“Entrepreneurship and leadership is about always having ideas, knowing that it is possible even though everyone says it is too difficult. Maintain the positive and always have new ideas.”

Mario Hernandez, founder and president, Marroquinera

Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Colombia


“To keep the entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurship alive once you've got past the startup base, I think it is making sure people understand why they are there. There are always things you can do to improve your business. You should be rethinking and retooling it every chance you get. The key thing is to make sure everybody in the organization understands the story, where are you going — how are you going to get there? And the belief that you are doing the right thing —people want to know their purpose. Keep the energy going, keep a strong sense of purpose.”

Dr. Alan Ulsifer

CEO, president and chair


Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Canada



“The skill sets of an entrepreneur involve understanding how to create business. Why not work with kids who need it the most and actually teach them and help them to be entrepreneurs? That’s what is going to grow our economy and create stability where otherwise we’re going to have a lot of social unrest.”

Amy Rosen,

President and CEO

Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship


“I like to be involved. I want to know everything that is going on. But I have to delegate to my team. That was the biggest adjustment for me, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s that delegating to others, trusting them and reinventing yourself. Now that we’ve grown, I put more responsibility on my team and rely on my team more than I once did.”

Corey Shapoff

President and founder

SME Entertainment Group


“If someone makes a mistake, what do you do? You laugh with them. You don’t yell at them. You laugh. It just keeps things light and lively and people want to do their very best. You let them know they screwed up, but you also let them know it’s OK.”

J.C. Huizenga


National Heritage Academies

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:46

Listen, learn and lead

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Leaders often talk about how the traits of accountability and transparency helped make them who they are, but to retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for four years under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, leadership is quite simply how you listen, learn and lead.

It’s not just a coincidence that communication is as important in the war zone as it is in an organization — and that’s where Mullen emphasizes listening to what his team members have on their minds.

Smart Business talked with Mullen about the challenges of being in command:

Q. What do you see as the most important trait that any leader must possess?

A. Integrity. Be true to yourself, and obviously true to your values. The value of integrity intrinsically has been a driver for me since I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has served me exceptionally well.

Integrity encompasses being honest, truthful and consistent — both publicly and privately in leadership positions — and representing that in every situation. It is most evident in the toughest decisions you have to make.

Q. And how can you ensure integrity is present in leadership?

A. What I loved about command was the responsibility and authority that came with it. But more than anything else, the other piece was accountability — accountable leadership. That is not just having someone hold you accountable, but having enough strength yourself as a leader to hold yourself accountable.

I just found that even with those decisions that can be very unpopular, if you are true to that value of integrity, even if it may not seem to some to be the best decision, it [integrity] holds you in the best stead as a leader over the long term. And because of that, it becomes incredibly supportive of those very, very tough decisions.

Q. So what can help a leader make those tough decisions more effectively?

A. As a more senior leader, I learned to keep a diversity of views around me. The more senior I got, the more diverse the people, the recommendations and the discussions had to be in order for me to make the right decision.

I had people around me who were willing to say, ‘Hey, this is when you got it wrong,’ as opposed to the opposite, which is isolation, where nobody will tell the emperor [he] doesn’t have any clothes on.

Q. You’ve mentioned the importance of listening to others in order to help you become a better leader. How did you do that?

A. Everywhere I went, whether we had a town hall meeting or we could call an all-hands meeting, I would take questions from the audience. So, for example, when a young enlisted man would give me a question of which I didn’t know the answer, I said, “I don’t know the answer, but give me your email address. I will go research it and get back to you.”

I did that. I went back and looked at whatever their concern was. And some of those concerns generated significant changes in the military, or in the particular service they were in. For me, as chairman, that was a vital part of trying to understand what I was asking them to do, and then taking that feedback and trying to fix the problem that they raised — if it made sense to do it.

A good leader can make such a difference, and create something out of nothing, whereas a bad leader is unable to do that. The ingredient that makes a difference is leadership. ●


Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen served more than 43 years in the Navy, having served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, and as chief of naval operations from 2005 to 2007. He will be the keynote speaker at the Dec. 5 American Red Cross Hero Awards. Learn more about the Hero Awards at

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:42

Beyond conversion

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Consider this business scenario: You’ve landed a big account for your company by converting a highly prized prospect into a valuable client. The new client has hired you to handle a specific scope of work and is counting on your team’s ability to deliver work that goes above and beyond.

While nothing is more important than delivering great customer service to satisfy the client, you may not realize that you’re probably overlooking unrealized opportunities to forge a stronger relationship with your customer.

In today’s business landscape, most large companies offer an array of products and services. More often than not, however, your clients use you for a specific service or skill set. And unfortunately, in this scenario, most companies focus solely on the task at hand — delivering what they’ve been contracted to deliver — failing to take ample time to think about the bond they’re creating with the client and what could be next.

In more simple terms, it is one thing to provide service that keeps a customer; it is another to keep that customer and expand the relationship to become a trusted partner.

Provide value in a deliberate way

The good news is that this is an easy fix. Establish a content marketing program that allows you to distribute thought leadership to your clients.

A content marketing program will help you provide value that other service providers may not, and when clients see you as an informational resource and partner, it will be easier to expand the relationship.

Take this example into consideration: You are an insurance provider and your main product is life insurance, therefore most of the communication you have with your clients surrounds that topic.

With a comprehensive content marketing program in place, however, you can educate your clients on the recent trends in the insurance industry and how that affects the individual. At the same time, you can give them an overview of your company’s wellness program and let them know that if they joined, they could reduce their monthly premiums.

As you can see, you’re not just providing your client with the original service, you’re also providing them with both your thought leadership — aka value — and additional offerings.

Personal connections payoff

Aside from providing value to the client with the content you distribute, a strong content marketing program allows you to showcase your brand’s personality. Clients will be able to connect with your brand on a more personal level.

Providing continually updated content through the right channels to the right clients enhances your day-to-day communications. Clients start seeing you as thought leaders and partners instead of just service providers.

It will help you expand relationships and, as a result, generate new business through more products and services.

Show them more than just what they see on the surface — show them how active you are in the community, or how much fun you had during a recent company outing. If may sound trivial, but your clients do similar things, and seeing you connect with the community and/or employees will help forge a more personal connection. You never know; you and your client may support the same charity, organization or team.

Open communication also will help strengthen relationships to the point where you can capture a premium price and eliminate price-jumping clients. Clients will pay more for a valuable relationship than simply look to get the lowest price elsewhere. ●


David Fazekas is vice president of marketing services for SBN Interactive. Reach him at or (440) 250-7056.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:37

Watch your margin

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You would think someone like Douglas Merrill would be a heavy multitasker, with multiple devices in hand, fielding several conversations — both real and virtual — simultaneously.

But you would be wrong.

Merrill, who was the CIO at Google until 2008, doesn’t like to multitask. He says that when you do it, you aren’t using your brain’s full capacity and aren’t as effective. He recommends focusing on one thing at a time.

Billionaire Mark Cuban has his own time management strategy. Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says you should completely avoid meetings unless you are closing a deal. Otherwise, he says, they are a waste of time.

Both of these proven leaders have learned that how you manage your time is paramount to your effectiveness.

As a CEO, you are swamped every day with calls and emails from people wanting a piece of your time. Some are internal, some are charity requests, some are from friends or family members and others are from service providers.

To help wade through this sea of information, it’s important to have a system in place to help you free up time to think about your business and the things that matter most in life. These open times are what author Richard Swenson refers to as “margin.” They are the spaces between ourselves and our limits that are reserved for emergencies.

But for many business leaders, there are no spaces left.

The way out of this trap is to set clear goals and values for yourself and your organization. Once you do that, you will have a filter through which to evaluate everything. Everything will have an immediate yes or no answer, eliminating the “let me think about it” category completely.

The key is to establish what your goals are first and then prioritize what is important. With your priorities straight, you will find more time to put toward important things on your goals list, but don’t forget to leave time on your daily schedule. There is no way to foresee all emergencies, so by leaving yourself some margin, when something unexpected happens, you already have time built in to deal with it.

Once you have margin built into your life, you have to have the discipline to stick to it. There will always be the temptation to take every meeting or answer every email. But if you use your goals and priorities as a filter, those requests are easily either accepted or declined based on where they fall on your priority list.

If you want a life where you can experience more peace and joy and less anxiety, start looking at your priorities and establish some margin in your daily schedule. ●

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 07:31

What to do if you’re under a public, verbal attack

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Deny, deny, deny; fall, tuck and roll; or put your head in the sand?

The quick answer to this headline is none of the above. A leader, by definition, must do exactly that — lead, which means being in front of a variety of audiences, including employees, investors and customers. Not everyone is going to be a gung-ho supporter. Sooner or later you’ll encounter a naysayer who either has a point to prove or is on a mission to make you and your company look bad.

Many of these verbal confrontations come out of nowhere and when least expected. As the representative of your organization, it is your responsibility to manage these situations and recognize that sometimes a “win” can simply minimize the damage.

When under siege, it’s human instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Typically these behavioral responses aren’t particularly productive in a war of words. Engaging in verbal fisticuffs could simply escalate the encounter, giving more credence to the matter than deserved.

If you flee by ignoring the negative assertions, you’ll immediately be presumed guilty as charged. It’s hard to make your side of the story known if you put your head in the sand.

By freezing, you’ll appear intellectually impotent. Worse yet, pooh-poohing a question will only fuel the aggressor’s determination to disrupt the proceedings. You could use a SWAT-type police and military technique to elude a confronter by falling, tucking and rolling to safety, but that usually only works on the silver screen.

Perhaps the best method to manage unwelcome adversaries is to be prepared prior to taking center stage. This applies to live audiences or a virtual gathering when you’re speaking to multiple participants, which is common practice for public company CEOs during quarterly analyst conference calls.

Most gatherings of this nature include a Q&A segment where the tables are turned on the speaker who must be prepared to respond to inquiries both positive and negative.

Before any such meeting, it is critical to contemplate and rehearse how you would respond to thorny or adverse statements or questions.

A good practice is to put the possible questions in writing and then craft your responses, hoping, of course, that they won’t be needed. This is no different from what the President of the United States or the head of any city council does prior to a press conference or presentation. The advantage of this exercise is that it tends to sharpen your thinking and causes you to explore issues from the other perspective.

In some cases you’ll find yourself in an awkward or difficult situation where there is no suitable yes or no answer, or when the subject of the interrogatory is so specific it is applicable to only a very few.

The one-off question is easiest to handle by stating that you or your representative will answer the question following the session rather than squander the remaining time on something that does not interest or affect the majority.

The more difficult question is one that will take further investigation and deliberation, in which case the best course of action is to say exactly that. Answer by asserting that rather than giving a less-than-thoughtful response to a question that deserves more research, you or your vicar will get back with the appropriate response in short order. This helps to protect you from shooting from the hip only to later regret something that can come back to haunt you.

Effective speakers and leaders have learned that the best way to counter antagonism is through diplomacy. It’s much more difficult for the antagonist to continue to fight with a polite, unwilling opponent.

Finally, when being challenged, never personalize your response against your questioner; always control your temper; and don’t linger on a negative. Keep the proceedings moving forward and at the conclusion keep your promise to follow up with an answer. This will build your credibility and allow you to do what you do best, lead. ●


Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:26

Is your next big thing built to last?

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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 or (440) 250-7026.