Having the Vision, Charting the Path, Removing the Blockers with Al Elliott (2/2)

Welcome to episode 236 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of a discussion with Al Elliott, detailing his process of scaling a business through iteration, how making an impact affects Al’s enjoyment of his work, and some ways in which we underestimate the number of times a successful business owner or entrepreneur may have failed on their way to having success.

Original Recording Date: 06-10-2023

Al Elliott is a business owner and one half of the Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture Podcast crew. His background is mostly marketing consultancy and building businesses. If you missed the first part of our conversation with Al, check out Episode 235.

Topics – Ideas to Achieve Scale; The Entrepreneur’s Creative Iteration; Passion, Purpose, and Making an Impact

3:21 – Ideas to Achieve Scale

  • Al and his business partner were doing something called “Sell and rent back,” which at some point became illegal to do unless you were certified in some way. Fortunately for them this happened about a year after he and his partner stopped doing the business (which was 2007, a tough year for the housing market). They had started in 2005 and ended in 2007.
    • Al says at the core this business was about looking for a problem and solving it.
  • In order to scale the business, Al didn’t have much when it came to marketing chops (skills).
    • Al says he used to read a lot of Dan Kennedy, and that his first business book was by this author.
    • The first attempt at scaling the business was trying to get in as many leads as possible. Al and his business partner used their last bit of money after buying their first house to buy space for an advertorial (a UK-specific term for advertising space in a newspaper). This was during a time when more people were reading newspapers.
    • Al found that most advertorials were not written like newspaper articles and didn’t seem to be very catchy.
      • Al tells us at this point (while working on the advertorial) he and his business partner had gone and applied for jobs because the business wasn’t working.
      • Al spent a few days reading through newspapers to get a feel for how each article was written. He then wrote an article as a journalist would with a title of “Government Helps Homeowners Drowning in Debt.” Al referred to their business as the Homeowner’s Advice Center and shared a statement within the advertorial from his business partner Chris detailing how they help homeowners and how anyone interested could get a free advice pack.
    • “That was incredible. That was the turning point. It went live on the Wednesday, and I woke up on Thursday and I genuinely had 40-50 people who had downloaded the [advice] pack….And then we had a call center who was managing our calls, and they had booked us in for like 8 appointments. And we were like ‘this is amazing!’” – Al Elliott, describing the business growth impact of an effective advertorial
      • From that initial investment of about 1500 pounds Al says they were able to buy 10 houses and generate an incredible amount of equity for themselves (likely a value of over 500,000 pounds today).
      • This came from Dan Kennedy’s idea of not advertising but advising.
    • They also used Google Adwords, which in 2006 worked really well.
      • Al references Perry Marshall who was an expert in this area. Al read everything he could get his hands on by Perry Marshall to build his own expertise.
      • “I wasn’t good at technically media buying. I was good at writing because I knew what to write because I’d been repossessed…so I could write the ads well.” – Al Elliott, on marketing to scale his business
      • Al tells the story of hearing a competitor’s ads on radio but then realizing this competitor had no web presence. Al and his partner took advantage of this with AdWords directing to their own website.
    • Al and his business partner figured out that a large number of people they were talking to were long distance lorry drivers (truckers / truck drivers). They started buying napkins with their advertisement on it and going to truck stops to give away free napkins. This probably led to buying 5-6 more houses.
    • There were a number of things they tried that just didn’t work.
      • One was getting the names and addresses of people about to get repossessed, sending letters, and offering to help. That one backfired horribly.
      • “We probably tried 30 different things. The 5 that worked well make great stories on podcasts like this. The 25 we didn’t do well, and we lost loads of money. Well, obviously I don’t talk about them…because I want to look like I’m really clever.” – Al Elliott, on trying different ways to scale a business.
      • John likes the idea of trying a bunch of different things and doubling down on the things that work.
      • Al gives the example of the person who started Dropbox and the video we remember that is associated with its launch. Likely there were many other attempts made before this one we remember that we don’t hear about and no one talks about.
      • John gives examples of other types of television ads / gimmicks that worked a couple of times but later permeated much of the advertising market for specific items (i.e. Dollar Shave Club, Old Spice guy, background changes and costume changes live, etc.). If you’re one of the first two with an idea like this, it might work. But the 4th person who tried it in these cases didn’t get anywhere.

11:49 – The Entrepreneur’s Creative Iteration

  • Nick says we do not take into consideration all the things a business owner / entrepreneur may have tried and failed. We only often see what they did which succeeded. Al did not let the things which did not work keep him from trying to find something that would work.
    • Al gives the example of the iPhone and how someone trying to compete with it today might tell themselves there is no way to make something better than the iPhones of today.
    • Can you remember the first iPhone? Al remembers the iPhone 3 and how it is “rubbish” compared to what we have today. If not careful we can forget the iteration it took to get from the beginning of a product like that to where it is today.
    • We shouldn’t compare ourselves to someone who is in their 5th year of business, for example.
    • “You’re looking at the end result. You’re not looking at all the things they did wrong. You’re not looking at the journey that got them there…. You have to do a lot of things wrong to get one thing right, unless you’re super lucky. And if you’re lucky, I think that’s really bad.” – Al Elliott, advice for listeners comparing themselves to those who have achieved success
      • Luck might win you the lottery, but many lottery winners go bankrupt soon after they win.
      • If you happen to be lucky on your first try, you might think everything you try will succeed, or you may decide you never want to take another risk.

14:33 – Passion, Purpose, and Making an Impact

  • We talk a little bit about teaching and how Nick was once a high school math teacher. John mentions those who teach need a passion for the subject and for actually teaching others, and he makes the observation that when explaining options to people faced with repossession Al was teaching while selling.

    • In Al’s case, he had the personal experience, the passion for the subject, and the skills to teach what he knew to others who were going through repossession.
      • When Al was doing math teaching in his youth, he very much enjoyed the actual teaching part. He loved taking people from not understanding a concept to finally getting it. Al did not like lesson planning, dealing with bureaucracy, and being around other teachers who were negative.
    • Al agrees when working in his finance business he was teaching people by writing blog posts, sending e-mails, etc. He was teaching them about a different way to get out of their current situation in a quite different environment (which may have made all the difference).
    • When Al asked Nick why he only taught for 3.5 years Nick says his kryptonite is that he cares too much about whatever he might be doing that is enjoyable (i.e. the podcast, for a current example).
      • Nick and his wife wanted to have children, and he figured he could not be as dedicated as he would want to be as a teacher and still be a good dad. Nick refers to this as walking away from something you love for something you love more.
  • Al gives the example of someone who loves making cupcakes but then not loving it when it becomes their profession. Can you ruin your passion by turning it into work?

    • John thinks you can. He shares the example of an older advertisement that shows someone day after day “making the donuts.” While someone might love donuts they may not want to get up every day to make donuts.
    • Scaling something can be challenging when it is incredibly low margin. John tells us the passion can turn into a grind but will be dependent upon the business and the person running it. John has seen people who love baking who continue to love doing it and who love being by themselves doing it late at night.
  • We know from his story that Al has turned some of his passion areas into businesses (including one centered on marketing). Has he ruined any of them as a result? Or furthermore, has anything become a grind to maintain?

    • Al says yes to a certain extent. The tactics became a grind.
    • At one point Al did WordPress sites for people but shutdown the company a couple of years ago, stating that people could go and buy themes for their site which were as good as what he could build.
      • That business specifically became a massive drain on his energy.
      • Al loves making websites. He loved sitting down with a mission to create a new site for someone. The problems came when the people for whom these sites were created started requesting a bunch of changes to Al’s design.
      • Listen to the story of Al coming up with one of the best designs he feels he has ever done and then the client requesting a bunch of changes after the fact. He hade the changes per his client’s request, but Al was not satisfied with the final product.
    • When it comes to marketing, what spurs Al on now is the psychology of people and human behavior (the area in which his wife Leanne is an expert).
      • “There’s so much overlap now we’re realizing between marketing and workplace culture and recruitment / engagement. It’s basically the same path as customers, but instead of customers you have employees.” – Al Elliott, on the applicability of marketing to workplace culture and talent pipelines
      • Al talks about finding out what people want and finding a way to give it to them (whether it is customers or employees).
      • “What I used to love and what I still will love is the idea of writing 100 ads and then finding the one that outperforms the rest by 12 to 1, by 100 to 1. That’s cool. What I think would be bad for me is if my job was to write 100 ads and then pass them over to someone and not see what happened.” – Al Elliott, on the need to see impact in his work
      • The sitting down and writing the ads does not bring Al joy. It’s using psychology to develop something that will resonate. He refers to this as similar to a difference between strategy and tactics.
      • There will be tactical elements to any job that we just do not like. But for Al, getting new ideas to try within his area of focus keep him going.
      • Nick observes that Al likes to see the impact of the work he has done, and without this, the work does not have the same meaning.
      • Nick compares this to donating blood and states people need to understand the impact they are making so they don’t believe what they are doing is for nothing.
      • John refers to this as a need for feedback and a feeling of ownership on what we’ve done (or in Al’s case, the feedback on constructing something and why it did / did not work, etc.). Would doing A/B testing on an ad have scratched the itch for Al?
      • “I have no problem with being wrong. I just want the market to tell me I’m wrong.” – Al Elliott, on seeing the impact of his work in marketing
      • If an ad had been objectively measured or A/B tested and it was discovered that someone’s design outperformed Al’s he would have understood and been ok with it. Al references Frank Kern and the simplicity of the designs as well as Kern’s success in getting response from the market. It isn’t just about a fancy design someone spent 20 hours building. It’s about the conversion rate.
  • For Al, it’s about impact. Isn’t that the whole point of any endeavor in a broader sense?

    • “You need to know what your reason is. If you’re building something, and you don’t know why you’re doing something, it just becomes a job.” – Al Elliott, on finding meaning from your work
    • If there’s a reason for why something needs to be completed because someone has shown you how your work will make an impact on the greater good of the company, it is no longer something you think of as only a job.
    • Al tells us a great leader will take the time to show us / explain to us the impact of our work on where the company is going.
    • “If we all know what the reason is and how it fits into the bigger thing, I think that’s enough for a lot of people.” – Al Elliott, on finding meaning in your work.
    • Nick agrees we need to find purpose in our work and cites The Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni. One of the signs is not knowing your work has a purpose.
    • Nick points out a metalesson here – the impact Al enjoys and the iteration upon it is just another form of removing the blockers. John calls it having the vision, charting the path, removing the blockers.
    • “Surely there is no greater calling or purpose on earth than knowing you’ve improved someone’s life…I think we all want to impact other people’s lives, but sometimes we don’t know how to even start.” – Al Elliott, on purpose and improving the lives of others
  • John wonders if Leanne will disagree with everything Al shared with us when we talk to her?

    • We’ll find out soon enough. Stay tuned!
  • Mentioned in the outro

    • We are always responsible for marketing our product(s), especially if our product is our skills, labor, etc. This applies inside our current organization and outside!
      • This reminds Nick of Don Jones’ advice to know the problem we solve from Episode 137. We should be marketing that.
      • Teaching and educating others is a form of marketing! Maybe its educating through blogs, podcasts, presentations, or some other medium.
    • One way to scale our own products (i.e. our products being ourselves and our skills) similar to what Al mentioned about scaling a business is to write good documentation of things that have worked for us and making it available so that the content can help others. Listen to John’s story from a previous employer.
      • The scaling yourself idea falls in line with what we discussed in Episode 147 on becoming hard to reach (part of the advice from Deep Work by Cal Newport). People asking questions we’ve already answered can read what we have documented, while new questions that have not been addressed need to be documented to further scale the scope and depth of content of what we’ve created to help others.
    • Nick mentions a recent talk by Bredon Burchard within GrowthDay about ownership of a process from end to end promoting employee engagement.
      • This goes along nicely with what Al mentioned about needing to see the impact of his work. Part of being able to do that is owning the process.
      • your core desire is to have a positive impact, knowing that your core thesis / idea is wrong is very helpful (i.e. you don’t get laser focused on being right but on helping as discussed in Episode 235).
    • In the episode we talked about not comparing ourselves just starting out (as individuals or as a business) to others who have released multiple iterations of a product and greatly improved it. It’s not a fair comparison.
      • John mentions we can control and commit to a process that we follow and refine over time. See Episode 19 on process over outcomes. John models this so well for others!
    • Don’t forget to subscribe to the Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture Podcast featuring Al and his wife Leanne as hosts!
      • What will Leanne have to say when we talk to her next week?

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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