4 Incredibly Simple Questions To Make Any Company Successful

Derek Sivers of CD Baby. And life. Here's my favorite story from Derek Sivers's brilliant tiny book Anything You Want. Sivers was in Las Vegas talking to his cab driver. The cabbie told Sivers he misses the mob. Sivers asked why:

“When the mafia ran this town, it was fun. There were only two numbers that mattered: how much was coming in, and how much was going out. As long as there was more in than out, everyone was happy. But then the whole town was bought up by these damn corporations full of MBA weasels micro-managing, trying to maximize the profit from every square foot of floor space. Now the place that used to put ketchup on my hotdog tells me it'll be an extra twenty-five cents for ketchup! It sucked all the fun out of this town! Yeah... I miss the mob.”

(Sure, we could bring up other issues with the mob, but let's just leave it as a metaphor and a lesson.)

I told this story a lot at CD Baby.

Sometimes MBA types would ask me, “What's your growth rate? What's your retained earnings rate as a percentage of gross? What are your projections?”

I'd just say, “I have no idea. I don't even know what some of that means. I started this as a hobby to help my friends, and that's the only reason it exists. There's money in the bank and I'm doing fine, so no worries.”

They'd tell me that if I analyzed the business better, I could maximize profitability. Then I'd tell them about the taxi driver in Vegas.

Never forget why you're really doing what you're doing.

Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Are you profitable? Isn't that enough?

Sivers, Derek (2011-06-29). Anything You Want (pp. 28-29). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

Four questions that define the only just reason for any business to exist. This should be a consultant's checklist:

  1. Are you helping people? If not, you should figure out a way to help or shut down the business. Companies that aren't helping are hurting, and that's evil.

  2. Are they happy? This goes beyond merely helping. Helping is the bare minimum. If they're not happy, you're doing it right.

  3. Are you happy? This might be the most important question of all. If making people happy by helping them doesn't delight you, find something that does.

  4. Are you profitable? Yes, you have a responsibility to make a profit, but only if you answered "yes" to the first three questions. If you're not helping, or if they're not happy, or if you're not happy, then you have no right making money doing what you're doing.

I read business journals and blogs every day that talk about companies squeezing another nickel out of unhappy customers they're killing before the CEO jumps off the roof of his 128-story tower.  What a waste of lives and money.

I know business schools don't teach helping, happy, happy, profit, but they should. And if they don't, why would anyone go?

Later, Sivers sums up the Tao of Business beautifully:

But even well-meaning companies accidentally get trapped in survival mode. A business is started to solve a problem. But if the problem was truly solved, that business would no longer be needed! So the business accidentally or unconsciously keeps the problem around so that they can keep solving it for a fee.

(I don't want to pick on anyone's favorite pharmaceutical company or online productivity subscription tools, so let's just say that any business that's in business to sell you a cure is motivated not to focus on prevention.)

It's kind of like the grand tales, in which the hero needs to be prepared to die to save the day. Your company should be willing to die for your customers.

That's the Tao of business: Care about your customers more than about yourself, and you'll do well.


Help people, make them happy, have fun, and make a profit. That's all it takes to run a successful business.

How to Persuade Like the FBI's Top Hostage Negotiator

The clock is ticking. Three people are in a small frame house: a woman, her five-year-old son, and a man bent on killing them both.

And the clock is ticking.

Outside the house is a team of expert killers.

And the clock is ticking.

How this ends is up to you, and there are three possibilities: no one dies, someone dies, everybody dies.

And the clock is ticking.

You have only three tools: a video feed from the scene, a phone, and your brain.

What’s your first move?


You Are an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Whether you’re a CEO, a marketer, or a mom, you live in a scaled down version of the hostage negotiator’s world. How so?  Another party wants something, you want something, but on the surface your wants don't seem to go together well.

You're about to learn how to bring those conflicting desires to a happy ending. 

Whether you’re trying to close a deal, design a perfect loyalty program, or get your kids to pick up their clothes, you face the same challenges that face the men and women who talk psychopaths out of slaughtering their families.

Luckily, one of those negotiators, Chris Voss, revealed the tricks of his trade to Eric Barker.  And those tricks can make your life a lot easier.

Hostage Negotiation Trick #1: If You’re Right, People Die

The last thing a negotiator wants to hear the psychopath say is “you’re right.”

According to Voss, “you’re right” is the end of the conversation. When people say “you’re right,” they’ve given up trying to reason with you. You wore them down, but didn’t get into their head or change their mind.

we love it when somebody tells us we’re right. It’s usually when we’re making an argument and we’ve worn the other side down, and they’re just sick of us… Even if I believe in my heart that you are right, I’m not vested when you’re right.

The magic words you want to hear the other side say are “that’s right.”

when I say “that’s right,” I’ve put myself in a position of adjudicating what you’ve said, and I’ve pronounced what you’ve said right. There’s a much greater chance that I’m going to accept it if I’ve said “that’s right” as opposed to “you’re right.”

So you want to get to “that’s right,” but how?  And the clock is still ticking. You’re under stress. The coffee’s weak and cold, and your colleagues cigarette smoke finds you wherever you go.

You’re ready to argue, but don’t.

Hostage Negotiation Trick #2: Arguing Is Schizophrenic

Voss reminds us that it’s difficult to talk to a schizophrenic because he has a voice in his talking whenever he’s not talking. He doesn’t have time to listen to you.

When you argue, though, you become schizophrenic yourself. Think about your last argument. You were either talking (or yelling) or you were preparing your next argument. So was the other guy. No one was listening, except for trigger words to pounce on.

the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you.

When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you. So it’s very much like dealing with a schizophrenic.

Two schizophrenics arguing with three lives at stake probably doesn’t end well.

So how do you break out of this cycle of death?

Hostage Negotiation Trick #3: Listen Up and Nobody Gets Hurt

Listen to what they want. Really listen.

The idea is to really listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them. It’s kind of a discovery process for both sides. First of all, you’re trying to discover what’s important to them, and secondly, you’re trying to help them hear what they’re saying to find out if what they are saying makes sense to them.

Listen closely enough that you can paraphrase what they’re saying. Then ask them to confirm your summary. And be patient.

Yes, the clock is ticking. But it’s difficult to carry on a conversation and kill people at the same time.

As long as you have them spellbound with their own story, as long as you let them parrot that voice in their head, they’re not hurting anyone.

You can say, “What are we trying to accomplish here?”  Then, “How is what you are asking for going to get you that?”  If you make them explain it to you, a lot of times both you and them are going to discover whether or not it makes any sense. So you can become a real sounding board in the negotiations to try and figure out whether the solutions match the problems.

It All Comes Down To Persuasive Design

I describe Persuasive Design as “helping people get what they want—in the context of your business.” Sounds a lot like the way Voss describes hostage negotiation.

  • Listen to gain confidence and understanding.
  • Confirm what you’ve heard by getting to “that’s right.”
  • Find out what they really, really want.
  • Ask how their present course will help them get that.

And, finally, one thing that the hostage negotiator didn’t tell you, but I will.

Once you find out, by listening carefully, what they really, really want, offer them a plausible path to getting it that benefits your business. And lets three people leave that little frame house alive.

Let me know your hostage situation in the comments. I'm here to listen . . . and to help you get everyone out in one piece.


Now find out why you should avoid affinity bubbles.

7 Ways to Kill Your Modifiers

I like to say “there’s no such thing as business writing.” Okay, there is.  It’s called “sucks.” From where I sit, “business writing” refers to strings of meaningless modifiers interrupted periodically by bland verbs and flabby nouns.  Thankfully, we readers have hope.  And our hope comes from science, not from the English Department. Here’s what I mean.

Dan Zarrella, the social media scientist, has determined that nouns and verbs work, adjectives and adverbs choke.  Here’s the sharebility of various kinds of words:

Active verbs zoom around Facebook while adverbs die on the author’s wall. That’s because modifiers usually weaken a sentence. They encourage writers to use imprecise nouns and dull verbs. For example:

Dull: He walked quickly through the room.

Not Dull:  The tomcat tore through the kitchen.

Both sentences describe the same event and the same actor.  The latter conveys movement and excitement, while the former induces sleep.

Here’s an exercise. Take some piece of your writing and do the following:

  1. Circle all the adjectives and adverbs.  (Just in case you don’t know, adverbs modify verbs and adjectives modify nouns.)
  2. Delete the ones that weaken the sentence.  For example “He was a brave and valiant soldier,” feels weak compared to “He was a soldier.”
  3. Replace weaker nouns with more specific ones. (“Soldier” becomes “warrior.")
  4. Repeat for verbs. (“Walked” becomes “tore.”)
  5. Edit out the modifiers if their opposites would sound ridiculous. For example, “Our software is fast, flexible, and easy to use,” is weak because no one would tell you their software is slow, inflexible, and cumbersome by design.  (Hat tip Guy Kawasaki.)
  6. Replace adjectives that make important points with anecdotes that convey the message more powerfully.  You say, “She’s a compassionate animal lover.” Try instead, “She has taken in over forty rescued dogs and cats, giving them loving foster care until the animals were adopted.”
  7. Restore the (few) modifiers you just can’t live without.  Sometimes, you need to say “the red dress.”

These seven steps will leave your paper stronger, more readable, and more shareable.  Your readers won’t know why it’s so good, just that it’s really good.

If you get any compliments on this new style, please comment below.