InnovaBuzz Episode #39 – Ian Altman: Grow My Revenue

Ian Altman

Ian Altman from Grow My Revenue

In this episode 39  of the InnovaBuzz podcast,  my guest is Ian Altman from Grow My Revenue.  Ian helps executives become outrageously successful targeting and winning business.  We talk about innovation and sales leadership – how to sell innovation and perhaps most importantly, how to ensure that what you produce and sell is what your customers really want and need.  There are a lot of gems in this interview, listen to the podcast and read on to find out more!

Listen to the Podcast

Always think about the customer experience and then help your customer get more and more comfortable doing business with you than with somebody else.

Ian Altman

Show Highlights

Some of the highlights of this episode include:

  • The sales process that Ian recommends – figure out what problem you’re great at solving, who your ideal clients are, and then adapt your message to match.
  • Ask: what kind of problems do you solve, and what happens if the clients don’t solve it? What are the alternatives for finding it? Why would they buy this from you instead of somebody else?
  • You need to be really clear about what your product or service does for your ideal clients.  If you are not, your clients won’t know either, and they won’t care as a result.
  • You need to understand why your customer would do business with you and what would prevent them from doing business with you. And if you know both of those things, then you can start figuring out who your ideal client is and what type of content you need to create to give them the trust and comfort that you’re the right solution for them.
  • The best client ironically is usually not the person who is seeking a service like yours. The best client is the person who is experiencing the symptoms you fix, but doesn’t yet know that they are suffering from those symptoms. If you help diagnose the symptoms and what that is costing the business, you are most likely going to be the default vendor to provide that service or product.
  • Sometimes if you underprice your product or service in the marketplace it’s not seen as a credible solution to the client’s problem or need.

Integrating sales with content is absolutely essential today – if you are not doing it, you are at a supreme disadvantage.

Ian Altman

The Buzz – Our Innovation Round

Here are Ian’s answers to the questions of our Innovation round. Watch the interview to get the full scoop.

  • #1 thing to be more innovative – Really understand the problem that you’re trying to solve, not just what it does.
  • Best thing for new ideas – We ask a lot of questions and listen incessantly.  Use the FIT (Find Impact Together) process.
  • Favourite tool for innovation – The Google Drive environment. Being able to simultaneously edit documents with other team members saves so much time and also allows me to capture ideas wherever I am.
  • Keep project / client on track – Have a shared vision of what the results look like. “How will we know in 6 or 12 or 18 months, if we are successful?”
  • Differentiate – Carve out your niche.

To Be a Leader

Desperately understanding what problems you solve for your customers – and if you understand the problems that you solve for them, then you’ll have an understanding of why they would or wouldn’t buy your products

Reach Out

You can reach out and thank Ian via his email.

Suggested Guest

Ian suggested I interview Seth Godin on a future podcast.  He joins David Jenyns with that suggestion. So Seth, we’ve got two people now who’ve asked for you to be on the InnovaBuzz Podcast, so if you do listen to this, look out for the invitation to invite you on our podcast.

Links

Full Transcript

Click to Read…

Intro:
Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz. Welcome to Episode No 39 of the InnovaBuzz Podcast – designed to help smart businesses with an interest in innovation become even more innovative.

In this episode, my guest is Ian Altman of Grow My Revenue. Ian is sought after speaker on topics such as revenue growth, adapting to economic conditions, innovation, and sales leadership. He’s also author of two Amazon #1 best sellers, “Same Side Selling” and “Upside Down Selling” and he hosts the Grow My Revenue podcast. He is a busy person and full of energy and great advice and ideas that he shared on this podcast episode. This is another outstanding interview with plenty of great information and learning nuggets for business owners.

Let’s get into the Innovation Hive and get the Buzz from Ian Altman.

Interview
Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz, and I’m really excited to have here with me on today’s episode of the Innovabuzz Podcast, all the way from Washington, D.C., Ian Altman from Grow My Revenue. Welcome, Ian. It’s a privilege to have you on the Innovabuzz Podcast.

Ian:
Jürgen, thanks so much for having me here.

Jürgen:
Now, Kara Ronin of Executive Impressions suggested we interview you on the podcast, so big shout out to Kara.

Ian:
Always happy to get a recommendation from Kara.

Jürgen:
Now, Ian helps executives become outrageously successful targeting and winning business. He regularly speaks on revenue growth, adapting to economic conditions, innovation, and sales leadership. He’s also an author with two Amazon #1 best sellers, and they are Same Side Selling, A Radical Approach to Break Through Sales Barriers; and Upside Down Selling, An Integrity-Based Sales Approach to Avoid Being Predictable. And you also host the Grow My Revenue podcast.

Ian:
I do. And I write publications every week. I am a columnist for the digital editions of both Forbes and Inc. magazines online.

Jürgen:
That’s right, so if you search Ian online, there’s a lot of information that comes up.

Ian:
Some of it is even true!

Jürgen:
So, you’re very busy. Now before we start talking about sales and revenue growth and innovation and all those kind of things, let’s find out a little bit more about your background as a person. So, when you were a young child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Ian:
Well, I think before I went to college, I was convinced that I wanted to be a physician. And I was a pre-med student, was a near straight A student my first year of college, and absolutely despised chemistry. And I went to the guidance counselor … I did well in chemistry, I just didn’t like it, and I went to the guidance counselor and said, “So, in order to become a physician, how much chemistry do I have to study?” and she said, “All of it.” And I said, “Well, what else do you have?” and the two areas that were always of interest to me, even as a young kid, my parents would laugh looking back, is – I liked medicine and I liked business. And it wasn’t like my dad was an entrepreneur; he was in the apparel industry. And so I don’t know where I got that bug, but as soon as I decided that medicine wasn’t it for me, business was just such an obvious thing that I became hyper-focused, I became a mediocre at best student because I started working immediately for different B2B companies. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, is in the business-to-business side of the world.

Jürgen:
And you were in the IT industry for quite some time, weren’t you?

Ian:
Yeah, so I started my first company in 1993. We became a Fast 50 company, so in the Washington D.C. area, one of the 50 fastest growing companies in the region. We then built a software company also, so a whole bunch of innovative products that we had developed in the software sectors. And then in 2005, a group of investment bankers approached us and acquired my company for cash and stock. Ironically, the board asked me to serve as managing director of the parent company, and we grew the value of the business from $100 million to about $2 billion in just over three years. So, somewhat of a wild ride, but hopefully gives me some credibility when we talk about strategies for business growth.

Jürgen:
Yeah, well, you’ve got a proven track record there, so that definitely gives you credibility. So, tell us a little bit more about Grow My Revenue and the business you run now.

Ian:
Well, it’s kind of funny. We’ve really shifted a lot of the branding from the Grow My Revenue side to really IanAltman.com. Over a few years, we realized that no one was calling up Grow My Revenue to find out if there was someone who could come speak at their event or work with their organization. They were calling for me, and so it became a simpler branding just to brand it as Ian Altman, but I realized after a while that I really enjoyed growing businesses, not so much running them. And so now I’m very fortunate that every day I get to work with really innovative companies, people that are doing amazing things, and I get to help them grow their business and I don’t have to run them. So it’s a perfect combination.

Jürgen:
So, what is a typical process? So, you come in and do some strategy and then obviously in the sales area is one of the big value adds?

Ian:
Yeah, there’s a few different things in my business. So, one side is I speak at a lot of conferences and events. I speak at the better part of 70 events per year delivering keynote addresses, workshops, and the like. Typically to senior executives and oftentimes organizations who want to engage their non-sales people in how to grow their business because there’s a whole evolution we’re seeing in sales in that no one wants the stereotypical pushy sales person, we want a subject matter expert who actually can help us figure out if there’s a good fit. So, shifting that mindset becomes very important.

There’s a small number of clients I work with each quarter strategically on how we’re going to grow their business. And there’s a whole process that we follow for that on figuring out what problem they’re great at solving, who their ideal clients are, work on their messaging. I’m a firm believer that sales and marketing are forever joined and fused together. And so you can’t look at one without the other.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s a great message. And I like the process starting off with the ideal client and what’s the problem you solve for them. It really resonates with me because that’s how we start with our website projects or our online marketing projects; that’s always the first step.

Ian:
Yeah, it’s often something that people overlook. Because the challenge is this, is that businesses … if you’re selling something, you know what your product does, but what you really have to understand is why somebody needs it. Because the person you’re selling to doesn’t necessarily understand why they need it. If they don’t understand why they need it, they don’t care what it does. So, you first have to start with the problem you’re good at solving, then they start to care about what kind of results they can get from it. And so, I often give kind of funny examples where I say, Look, if someone was the best surgeon in the world at treating tennis elbow, unless you have tennis elbow, you really don’t care. And even if you have tennis elbow but you don’t realize you have tennis elbow, you’re not going to care. So, until the patient understands that they have a condition that you’re good at treating, they don’t care how good you are at providing that service.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s right. And even if they … and the other part of it is once they realize they have the tennis elbow, then they’re concerned about fixing the problem and taking away the pain or the issue.

Ian:
Absolutely. And the interesting part of that is that if you wait until the customer is seeking the tennis elbow surgeon, then anybody who performs that surgery they see as a commodity. If you help them diagnose their condition before they even realize they had it, then you’re the default vendor to provide that service. So, the best client ironically is usually not the person who is seeking a service like yours. The best client is the person who is experiencing the symptoms but doesn’t yet know that they have the condition.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s great advice. So, what kind of processes do you use to go into that analysis and figure out who is your ideal client and how do you know that somebody has a certain problem or issue that you can solve?

Ian:
So, first we ask a lot of questions. When I’m working with organizations, what we think about is things like there’s certain constructs that I write about in Same Side Selling that we spend a lot of time with our clients on. And those involve first discovering the fit or finding impact together. So, fit, we use the acronym FIT for Find Impact Together, and the idea is that you are trying to figure out not only what’s this issue that someone is facing, but how does that issue impact them if they don’t solve it. The example being that someone can have, let’s say someone has tennis elbow, but they don’t play tennis professionally, it doesn’t keep them up at night, it doesn’t prevent them from doing anything, they just have a little discomfort, and if they take some pain reliever, it goes away. Well, that person may in fact have tennis elbow, but they’re probably not going to spend money or endure the risk associated with the procedure on something that isn’t that important to them. Now, on the other hand, if you take somebody who plays tennis professionally, well, guess what, they’re going to have a high sense of urgency to fix that condition. Or if it’s somebody who says, Man, I can’t play with my children, I can’t spend time … I’m waking up at night, I’m not getting a good night’s sleep, that person’s also going to treat the condition. And too often what happens is in business is that the person doing the selling or the organization selling is more passionate about solving the problem than the customer is. And when that happens, bring your wallet, because you’re going to have to pay for it, because the customer won’t. And so, what we do is we look at, with our clients, we say, Well, what kind of problems do you solve, and what happens if the clients don’t solve it? And what are the alternatives for finding it? And why would they buy this from you instead of somebody else? And you’d be amazed how many people look back with a blank stare, and they say, “I don’t know.” And I think to myself, “If you don’t know, how do you expect your customer to figure it out?” So first things first. You need to understand why your customer would do business with you and what would prevent them from doing business with you. And if you know both of those things, then you can start figuring out who your ideal client is and what type of content you need to create to give them the trust and comfort that you’re the right solution for them.

Jürgen:
Yeah, and that’s, all of that was great advice. And you touched on something at the end there about content and so on, and which is kind of positioning yourself then to be the trusted advisor for that particular problem and the solution, right?

Ian:
Indeed. I don’t know if you know my friend Marcus Sheridan …

Jürgen:
Yeah, I do. Well, I don’t know him personally, but I know his story.

Ian:
So, Marcus is a good friend of mine and he teaches a philosophy called They Ask, You Answer, so whatever your clients would ask, you want to address that in content on your website. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just related to the problems you solve. So, for example, if let’s say, let’s say you’re helping innovative entrepreneurs on how to position their websites. Well, all of your content doesn’t have to relate to the websites. You might create content that just has to do with what are the different culture issues that innovative entrepreneurs face, because your ideal clients are interested in that type of content also. And after they’ve read 5, 10, 25 articles on your site that are all unbiased, they’ve now built a comfort level with dealing with you, even though they’ve never met you. And so today to integrate sales with content is absolutely essential, and if you’re not doing it, you’re really at a supreme disadvantage.

Jürgen:
Yeah. That is a fabulous message. It’s something that I keep telling all of my clients and audiences, and it still amazes me that it doesn’t seem to get through to a lot of people.

Ian:
And it’s funny because people come up with very legitimate excuses for why they can’t do it. The first one they give is “We don’t have time,” which whenever someone says “I don’t have time,” what they’re really saying is it’s not a priority.

Jürgen:
It’s not important. Yeah.

Ian:
Amazingly, they find time to eat and sleep, but they don’t find time to do the things that can help their business. The second side is, “Well, we have no idea what kind of content we would create.” And the model for that is, Well, what you really need to think about is what questions do you get asked? So, ask … everybody who is customer facing, give me ten questions that customers ask you. Give me ten reasons why people would or wouldn’t do business with us. Give me ten concerns that customers have about working with us or just implementing the type of technology that we have. And then we’ll address them. So, for example, if you’re helping someone with their website and how to position things, I guarantee one of the common questions you get is, “Well, we can’t share that information because then our competitors will know.” And guess what. So, if you create a piece of content that says why it doesn’t matter what your competitors know, then someone reads it and all of a sudden they go, “Oh, wow. He just addressed a big question that we have.” Now the irony is this. So, what you’re saying at that point is look, my customer doesn’t know, so my customer doesn’t have this information and I don’t want to share it on my website because my competitor might find out about it – which, by the way, your competitor knows anyhow. But let’s just say that anyhow. So, now what you’re doing is you’re saying I’m not going to provide the information, so when my customer is seeking it, someone else is going to produce the information, and now they’re going to get the information from them instead of from us. Is that a good strategy? It’s kind of like, “Well, we don’t want to list our pricing on our website, so we’re not going to list it at all.” Well, as Marcus jokes, okay, so when you’re searching for pricing information on a website and you go there and can’t find it, what happens. You go someplace else and you’re annoyed. Great. Do you think your customers behave any differently? Of course, they don’t. So, you have to think about the customer experience and how do you help your customer get more and more comfortable doing business with you than with somebody else.

Jürgen:
Yeah. And there’s a lot of great stuff in that, and certainly – I like that a lot of the presentations that I’ve seen that you’ve done, you focus very much on what is the customer experience, and that’s a message that I’m trying to give people on websites all the time. Because it’s exactly as you say. You go there and you get annoyed and you leave. And the rule in websites is it’s about three seconds that people’s attention span is these days, when they go to a website, and if they don’t find what they’re looking for in three seconds, they’re off to find it somewhere else.

Ian:
You’re very fortunate. In your part of the world it’s three seconds. In my part, it’s two seconds.

Jürgen:
Yeah, right. We’ve got a slower internet here.

Ian:
People are a little more laid back, it’s all.

Jürgen:
Alright, I’ll have to talk about two seconds then, because a lot of people do international business. Yeah. So, what … in terms of innovation, what do you see as the biggest trap that innovators see or encounter when they’re trying to sell new ideas?

Ian:
You know what. It gets back to what we were talking about a little bit before, which is often times an innovator will focus on what their technology or innovation does rather than why people need it. And so I’ve done a lot of research on how executives make and approve decisions. And the formula goes something like this. And I write about this in Same Side Selling, the formula is, and I run people through a whole exercise and there’s a whole fun thing that we do to get there, but the conclusion comes down to people ask consistently, no matter where they are in the world, the same three questions, and those questions are this. The first question is what problem does this solve or why do I need it? And the second question is what is the likely outcome or result, in essence the ROI or benefit of it? The third question is what are the alternatives or why should we pick this? So, if you think about that, the area where most innovators spend their time is on the results or benefits. Oh, we have this new technology that does this and this and that. It makes this more efficient, it makes this faster, it makes this better. The problem is that’s all in the expected results or outcome side. But if the customer doesn’t first understand what problem it solves or why they need it, then it really isn’t relevant. And they don’t care until they understand what problem it solves and why they need it. And so they need to follow a methodology or process that uncovers that information first. Because everybody knows or has a pretty good idea of what kind of symptoms they are experiencing. They may not know what solutions are available or what they might need. But they do understand the problems or challenges they are facing.

So, if you’re coming out with a new innovative product, what you have to ask yourself is why does somebody need this? Why would somebody care? And who’s going to care the most? And let me target those people first. So, there’s an innovative product out there in the healthcare arena that has to do with diagnosing for women a certain type of cervical cancer. And so it’s a really phenomenal product and platform, and the key to these people is, I said to them, “Well, what problems are you solving?” and they said, “Well, this can save lives and it can improve diagnosis,” and I said, “Well, who’s going to care most about that?” And as we were having the discussion, it became clear that look, not every doctor is going to put their patients’ health and safety ahead of their own pocketbook. But some of them will, so you need to figure out which ones they are. Now eventually, once enough doctors have this new innovative test, then the people that don’t have it, their practices are going to suffer. But initially, if you’re trying to target everybody, some of the people say, “Wait, I’m going to spend out much money for something that I’m not going to get additional reimbursement on?” as opposed to the physicians who really care about their patients say, “Look, even if it costs me money, I don’t care because I’d hate to misdiagnose a patient.” So, it sounds funny because not every doctor is going to treat that condition the same way. So, the doctor who goes to sleep at night saying, man, I hope I didn’t miss anything, they’re going to spend the money to get this new diagnostic equipment. The person who’s just counting the money probably won’t.

Jürgen:
Yeah. So, that’s a really important message, is really understand the customer and understand the niche that you’re going to get the biggest impact; you’re going to solve. Well, your solution is actually a match to their problem and they have a real desire to solve it.

Ian:
Exactly.

Jürgen:
So, how do you go about pricing something that’s innovative or new like that then?

Ian:
Well, see. That’s the beauty. If you focus on the problem that it solves, then that becomes the issue that they’re facing. And there’s a concept we talk about called issue, impact, and importance. And the idea is that most organizations focus on the issue, which is that superficial part. The impact is the quantifiable impact for the client of not solving that problem. So, if I have something innovative, the mistake that a lot of innovative companies make is they say, Well, let’s see, here’s what it cost us in R&D, and then in order for us to produce this thing, it cost us $10,000. So, what we’re going to do is we’re going to price it at $20,000 because it cost us $10,000 to make. Well, what it cost you to make might have nothing to do with its value.

I remember in my prior business we had a subsidiary that had a piece of technology that they sold for about $400. And we had a solution we sold into hospital organizations for handling their electronic documentation. And it gave them the ability, if they needed to, to print these things out so if there was a failure in the systems, everything could still work. And so this little module that was hundreds of dollars, I talked to the CTO and said “What’s this thing worth?” They said, “Well, we sell it for $400 or $500 and it does everything.” So, if you’re just using a piece of it, you probably can’t sell it for more than $200. And when I talked to clients, I said “Well, what happens if you guys can’t solve this issue that we’re talking about solving?” and the client said, “Oh, are you kidding, we can be fined the better part of a million dollars a year if we don’t have this and we lose this certification. And if we lose that certification, our reimbursements decline by 3%.” Oh really. Well, how much do you guys get reimbursed a year? And we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. And we said, “Okay, well here’s this additional module. It’s $50,000.” and they said, “Oh, that’s fantastic.” The reality is we probably could have priced it at a half a million and would have gotten the same reaction. We just didn’t have the guts to do it, but it was worth dramatically more than what it cost us to build it.

Jürgen:
Yeah, and I think that’s, you know, the really important point there is what value is it to the client, and if the return on the investment that they make is huge, then they’re happy to spend the money.

Ian:
And if you think of it this way. Let’s say it cost you $10,000 to make and you’re trying to sell it for $20,000. If the client has a $5,000 problem, they’re not going to spend even $10,000 to fix it. And if the client has $1,000,000 problem, they’ll laugh if you charge them $20,000 because they’ll think that $20,000 product can’t possibly solve my million-dollar problem.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s right. There’s credibility involved.

Ian:
Sometimes if you underprice it in the marketplace – and part of it of course depends upon your goal. If you’re trying to gain market share, you might price it at a point where people don’t have to make a solid justification. Because there’s a certain level at which if prices are so inexpensive that people will just buy it and won’t care. But that’s a whole different animal at that point. So, it’s a question of how you want to structure it.

Jürgen:
That is a really good aspect though to consider because if there’s an expectation that the client has to do something or contribute something to make the solution work, then the higher price it is, the more commitment they’re going to have to their part.

Ian:
Yeah.

Jürgen:
I like the story you tell on one of the videos on your website of the images.

Ian:
Yeah. I’ll give you a sneak, like the abridged version of that, which is when I was in my early 20s, I got assigned our largest commercial account. The client was spending $1.5 million a year just in maintenance and support for our products. And about a month into it, the vice president for my client, this guy Steve, calls me up and says “We have these 300 images that we need to put up on the mainframe, can you guys do it?” I said “Of course we can.” Not because I knew that we could, but because I was an inexperienced sales guy and I just thought you say yes, and you figure it out later; you let engineering deal with it then. And so to cut a long story short, it turns out that our head of engineering tells me it’s going to cost a lot of money to do this. In fact it’s going to cost about $1,000 per image to convert the images. And I’m thinking, “Oh, my goodness. This is horrible. I can’t deliver news like this over the phone, and I better start working on my resume, because there’s no way this is going to turn out well.”

I go out and go to meet with the client, and so before I go out there, I basically say to him, “Hey, listen, we’re not going to talk business the first day, I’m going to fly out to you, we’re going to play golf, we’re going to have a great dinner. The next morning we’re going to talk business.” And the reason I did this is not because of any great reason, I was just in my early 20s and I’m thinking if I’m going to get fired on Wednesday, I’m going to have a great day on Tuesday. And all this, we finally meet the next morning, and he says, “So, do you have a solution for these images?” and of course I’m petrified to share this with him because I believed that price was so important he was never going to go for this and spend $300,000 on the solution.

So I stalled and I said, “Hey, Steve, can you remind me why you need to do this?” And Steve explained that this problem, they believed was costing them $30-$40 million per quarter because they couldn’t get these images out there. And of course, they bought the solution. It wasn’t even budgeted. It’s a Fortune 50 company. They had the funding and the contract signed within 36 hours of us submitting it to them, and of course it hadn’t been budgeted but they found the money instantly. And so the whole message there is that we often focus on the issue or that superficial side of what they’re trying to accomplish, but once I understood what the impact was, then I knew what it was worth, and I realized that $300,000 was trivial. But everybody thought the $300,000 was too expensive, including the company I worked for.

Jürgen:
That’s a really good story because it highlights that you really need to take time to understand the issue and the client and what the impact is of the problem that they have.

Ian:
You know what. It’s something that little message becomes so valuable. I get emails from people, there’s a gentleman down in Florida who sells a service to people, high net worth people on helping them with their tax structure. And the guy just, he’s got a great business and was struggling a little bit, and all of a sudden started implementing these approaches of issue – impact – importance of something we call the same side quadrants and some of the principles in Same Side Selling. And I received a note from him a couple of weeks ago that says, “Yeah, I had done in the last four months about 10% of what I was supposed to be doing for the year, so I was dramatically underperforming. And in the last six weeks, following these principles, I’ve now basically caught up and surpassed my goal for the year, and now I’m the top performing guy in the company.” And what I always say is it’s very flattering for me, but most importantly, there’s a lot of people who read these principles and don’t implement them, and then there’s people who read about them and do something about it. And so, he gets all the credit because he actually did the work, as opposed to the people who read about it and then put it on a shelf.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s right. And I was putting together a presentation that I’m doing shortly on innovation, and one of the things I say in that is innovation isn’t just ideas, it’s actually taking the action. And I think that message applies to so many things, doesn’t it?

Ian:
Absolutely – at the end of every one of my talks, I usually break into module, at the end of each module I always ask people in the audience, “Now, I want you to write down what your key takeaways are and what the action steps are, and if you don’t know what the action step is, raise your hand and I’ll help you find it because otherwise you just wasted a part of your life that you’ll never get back.”

Jürgen:
Yeah. Exactly. Which is analogous to my message about websites, you know, one of the things that is important on a website is getting your audience to take some action.

Ian:
Yeah.

Jürgen:
Okay. So, in your own business, what do you see as the biggest challenges that you have and how are you addressing those?

Ian:
You know what. My biggest challenge really just comes down to prioritization and focus. Because there are new things that we’re doing in my business, we’re creating an online learning center, and keep in mind, in the meantime, I’m writing for two global publications every week. I’m speaking at events, I’m trying to figure out what book I’m going to write next. And in the meantime, I’m trying to launch this learning center to support more of the clients for my business. And it’s about just building the right team and making sure that we get those things done and that we prioritize, because sometimes I’ll look down and realize that everything I have is priority 1 and that can’t be lax. So, if everything is priority 1, then nothing is priority 1.

Jürgen:
That’s exactly right. So, how do you approach all of the writing you do then? Do you have a structured plan out for a few months or even a year?

Ian:
Yeah, so we lay out an editorial calendar that changes based on new things that are going on. I also always get input from my audience, so at the end of every podcast, end of every article, I’ll ask, “Hey, what would you like me to cover?” and often times I’ll move around the schedule because somebody asks for something and then I think, “Wow, that’s a great topic to cover.” So, it’s following the editorial calendar definitely helps. Sometimes I’ll write about the guests on my podcast if I had a podcast episode that really struck me, I’ll write about that and link to it and say “Hey, listen to the full episode, but here are the key takeaways.” But it’s definitely, there’s definitely a lot. And anytime we bring somebody new onto the team, their first comment is “Man, there’s a lot of stuff going on here.” And I just have kind of gotten used to it, but there’s time where I step back and I think, “Man, we’ve got a lot of things going on. I need to kind of scale back and better focus on what I need to be doing.”

Jürgen:
Well, it’s interesting that I kind of led you there, I guess, in terms of the writing process and having an editorial calendar; how important that is to actually keep you doing something regularly, and also keep you on message. And I love the idea of asking when you’re speaking or on a podcast or whatever it might be, asking the audience what else do they need to know.

Ian:
Yeah, and it’s great because I’ll get questions from people, they say, well, how would you address this? And my first thought is “That’s going to be a great article.” Oh, what was the question again?” That’s like; that will be a great podcast episode; okay, I’ll cover that. Oh that’s right, I still have to answer the question. So, but it’s great to get that kind of information.

Jürgen:
My last guest, we haven’t published this one yet, it’s due to publish on Friday, is Kronda Adair, who runs a digital agency in Portland, Oregon, and her target for publishing blog articles is that she never has to directly answer a question, she always sends people to her blog.

Ian:
Well, that’s great, and that gets back to kind of Marcus’s you ask, or they ask, you answer philosophy. You know, that’s a great strategy that works extremely well. In my business, it’s a little bit different because I’m not necessarily addressing questions that people are going to be asking me in my business as much as challenges they’re facing in their business that they’d like insight into. And there’s a lot of people who have the mindset of “Well, but you’re giving all of this information for free.” Yeah, that’s true, but in my business, people generally engage me to address an audience and either people are going to read my content and say, “Wow we need this guy to speak at our event,” or they’re going to say, “Nah, this isn’t the message we want.” And both of those things are very valuable. And in fact the last thing I ever want to do is speak at an event where I’m not the right fit.

Jürgen:
That’s right. And that comes back a little bit to focus as well because if you can get your written message actually prequalifying the people that want to engage you to speak, then you save time.

Ian:
Absolutely. It’s kind of funny. One of the mistakes that a lot of innovative companies will make is they want to attract everybody. And what I always say is look, if you attract 1,000 people, and in those 1,000 people are 40 qualified opportunities, that means that your sales organization has to figure out which 960 are not worth your time. If instead you could figure out how to let people self-select and remove themselves and now get it down to 60 of which only 30 are good clients, then now your sales organization gets to focus on 50% of those opportunities are right and 50% are wrong. Now you might think, Yeah, but the other way, I lost the other 10. Yeah, but it’s okay because you didn’t have to go through 960, you only had to go through 60. So, you can replicate that over and over and over again and keep getting that narrow list, and that’s where developing your niche and your focus that really pays off.

Jürgen:
Exactly. And also, in your example, if you had to spend all of that time filtering out the 960, you may lose a lot of those 40 anyway that are a good fit because you’re focused on other things.

Alright. So, in terms of your own business, what are some of the most innovative things you’ve done to grow the business?

Ian:
You know what. I mean, I don’t even know how innovative it is as much as, so there’s some things that we’ve done when it comes to … we saw that people weren’t very effective in role playing or preparing for real live customer scenarios. And so we built a game called Same Side Improve that’s designed to facilitate and have a fun way of people practicing real live customer situations. So, that’s one tool that we developed that provides that. And right now we’re creating an online learning center that will launch initially with about 50 different videos. And each scenario will be, for example, so what do you do if you’re facing pricing pressure from your customer? What do you do if they already have an existing vendor that does the same thing that you do? What’s a good way to capture someone’s attention initially? How do I deal with, at a networking event, what’s the best way to introduce myself? What type of content should we be creating? I mean, all sorts of different scenarios, and then at the end of each one there’s an exercise that scores that and provides people feedback so they understand what they need to work on. That’s a whole model that we’re building out. And really what it comes down to is I can’t be everywhere at the same time, so if I can create an online tool that allows people to reinforce the skills that we know can help their business, make it affordable and make it so they can access it 24/7 and provide some reporting. And our thought is it’s going to be pretty valuable for our audience.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s great. I mean the online learning space is just booming, isn’t it? And the internet has opened up the opportunities for putting courses online, getting the leverage and reaching a much bigger audience.

Ian:
One of the challenges that we see is, there are a lot of information products that aren’t very action oriented. So, it’s kind of like here’s a self-guided thing and hopefully you figured it out. So, we’ve spent a lot of time and resources on the development to make sure that at the end of every exercise there is a meaningful metric or way to know whether or not the individual understood the concepts and can put them to work. And that way a manager can say, Okay, I’ve got 65 people on my team who are enrolled in this thing. Who do I really need to work on?

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s great. Because I’m doing a little bit with online courses at the moment too, and one of the big challenges with them is that even the very best online courses that are around at the moment, the statistics say that completion rates are about 10%. And they’re the very best ones, which, when you think about it, is pretty abysmal.

Ian:
Yeah, so that’s why, I mean we’ve invested quite a bit to make sure that it provides real value. And once again it ties back to our biggest challenge is I would have loved for it to have launched in 2015, and now we’re just hell bent on making sure it’s going to ship in 2016. And it’s just, the challenge is, okay, do I not take on this other speaking engagement; do I not speak at Content Marketing World; do I not speak at Thermo Fisher’s national meeting. You know, it’s … balancing all of those things out together becomes just a challenge to make sure that we focus on the right things.

Jürgen:
That’s good. So, I think it’s time we moved on to our innovation round, which I call The Buzz. So, it’s designed to help our audience who are primarily innovators and leaders in their field with some tips from your experience. So, I’m going to ask you a series of five questions, and hopefully you’ll give us some really insightful answers that will inspire everyone to go out and do something awesome, to take action.

Ian:
Yeah, I don’t know what the odds are of that actually happening, of me giving something valuable, but we’re going to give it a shot.

Jürgen:
Alright. So, what’s the #1 thing anyone needs to do to be more innovative?

Ian:
Really understand the problem that you’re trying to solve, not just what it does. And I’ll give you a quick example. In my prior business, we had two different software products that we launched. One that we knew was really innovative and did something really, really cool with technology that it turns out nobody needed. And then another one that was really boring but everybody understood the problem it solved. And this is going to come as no great surprise that the latter one was wildly successful, and the former one was one of the best pieces of software that nobody ever used.

Jürgen:
Yeah, well, there’s a few examples of that around I think. Alright, thanks. That’s great. So, what’s the best thing you’ve done to develop new ideas or new products?

Ian:
You know what, it ties back to that same thing. We listen incessantly. In my prior business and now, it’s constantly oh so here’s the problem you’re facing. What happens if you don’t solve it? How big of a deal is that? What would happen just before that or after that that would make it more valuable? So, for example, we had a tool for the pharmaceutical industry that allowed them to review and markup documents. Which is fine – but the greatest value was we said, “So, after you mark it up, what happens?” They said, “Well, then depending on the nature of the comment, it gets routed to different people inside the organization.” I said, “Huh, really.” So, when we launched the product, not only could you comment, but if you commented and said this is a regulatory issue, whoever was assigned to regulatory for that project automatically was notified and was brought to that place in the document to comment on it. Well, without asking that additional follow-on question, we would have missed that entirely that ended up being one of the linchpins of success for that product.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s great advice. So, it’s still really understanding the problem that you’re solving, but also the impact it’s having and the whole workflow of the process as well.

Ian:
Yeah.

Jürgen:
Alright. What’s your favorite tool for improving productivity and allowing you to be more innovative?

Ian:
This is going to sound kind of silly or pedestrian, but the Google Drive environment. The notion of people being able to simultaneously edit a document. For me to be able to, on my phone, jot down ideas and then someone else pick up on that. We’ll often throw … We have like a folder where all of our ideas go. And just people collaborate together on that, and it really helps us deliver some innovative ideas. So, it’s not the most progressive product out there, but it does some pretty cool, high functioning things.

Jürgen:
Yeah, well it comes back to what you were saying in answering question 1, which is, you know, it’s addressing a need in a way that actually solves a problem or delivers value for you. And I make a lot of use of the Google Drive environment and it’s something that I take for granted at times, but then I realize a lot of people don’t use it and I highly recommend that they do.

So, what’s the best way to keep a project on track?

Ian:
Well, a lot of it comes down to having a shared vision of what the results look like. And what I mean like that is often times people are working on a project, and the finish line is somewhat ambiguous. And so the people working on the project might envision a different success than the customer does. And when that happens, you end up with misalignment that can be catastrophic. So, instead, if before the project starts, if you said to the client, “How would we know six months out, eighteen months out, whether or not we were successful?” And this is, if you’re doing internal product development, it’s the same thing. The product development team works with the product marketing folks and says, “So what does success look like?” And then now everyone knows what the finish line has to be. Otherwise, it’s like if we got in our car and said, “Okay, I’m going to meet you at our destination,” and we both in our car and all of a sudden realize we haven’t agreed on what the destination is, it’s pretty unlikely we’re both going to arrive at the same place.

Jürgen:
Exactly. It’s a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, isn’t it. Was it the rabbit who said “Where are you headed?” and the answer was, “I don’t know,” so he said, “Well, you’re headed in the right direction then.”

Ian:
Yeah, my former COO always said look, if you’re planning on a road trip and someone says, “Hey, listen, let’s get in our cars; we’re going to Paris,” well, guess what, Texas has a city called Paris also. So, you might end up in the wrong Paris if you don’t pay attention.

Jürgen:
Yeah, exactly. Well, that’s kind of funny because I’m transitioning … We do a weekly newsletter, and I’m getting my staff to send it out now through our autoresponder system, and you can schedule it. And I say it’s got to be scheduled at this time on a Wednesday, and the first few times when they did that, I was looking for it in my inbox at that particular time and it hadn’t arrived, and I thought, “What’s going on here?” Well, it turns out there’s a Melbourne in Florida, right; the U.S., so the time zone difference obviously is probably about 14 or 16 hours.

So, what’s the #1 thing anyone can do to differentiate themselves?

Ian:
Well, a lot of it comes down to carving out your niche. And when, a couple of years ago, we were planning a family vacation and it turns out that my, it turns a couple of weeks before my son got diagnosed with something called celiac disease so he can’t eat anything with gluten in it. And so we’re on vacation, we’re at Disneyland, we’re the first people there at the park pretty much, and now it’s late morning and of course he’s getting hungry. And so our daughter can eat anything, and she’s looking at all of these different great snacks that she can have, but of course all of them have gluten and he can’t have them. And we turn the corner and here’s this popcorn stand that says “gluten free” on it. And my son says, “Oh Dad! Look, there’s something I can eat. They have gluten free popcorn. Can we get a large?” And I said, “Look, if they’ll fill a trash liner with popcorn, I’ll buy it. We finally found something you can eat.” Well, here’s the interesting thing. Popcorn has always been gluten free. Unless they add something to it, it’s always going to be safe, but they just don’t tell people. And so often times, when it comes to differentiating yourself, it’s about sharing with people ideas or details that maybe other people are overlooking but are going to matter to that audience. Now keep in mind, it gets back to the problems that you solve, because if you don’t understand there are people who either want to eat less gluten or have celiac disease, then you would never even think about including that on the packaging.

Jürgen:
That’s right.

Ian:
We had created a software product years ago that dealt with electronic forms automation. But our biggest clients were using it for regulatory compliance. And when we started, when we went through the steps to get the proper certifications, we started selling this as a regulatory compliance platform. Well, it knocked out 95% of our competitors overnight. But we didn’t really think about it at the time. So, there were years we were marketing electronic forms automation and we didn’t realize that we were doing ourselves a disservice because we hadn’t hyper-focused on that niche. So, when it comes to differentiating, that’s what you really want to be doing.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s great advice and good examples too. Alright, so, now you’ve shared … I usually ask what’s the future hold for your business, but you’ve already shared with us the online learning thing and looking at a new book perhaps coming down the track. Can you tell us anything about that, or is it is still not defined?

Ian:
You know what. It’s still nascent enough that we don’t need to worry about it coming out in the next few months. So, it just takes some time. It’s like giving birth, only more difficult, I suppose!

Jürgen:
Alright, then. So, what’s the #1 piece of advice you’d give any business owner then who wants to be a leader in innovation in their field?

Ian:
You know what. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it comes back to desperately understanding what problems you solve for your customers. And if you understand the problems that you solve for them, then you’ll have an understanding of why they would or wouldn’t buy your products, and it might encourage you to include or omit a capability in that innovation that’s going to be the difference of getting something to market in the right timeframe, something that people would pay for, and understanding why they would buy it. And just recognize that if you don’t understand why they would buy it, they’re probably not going to figure it out on their own.

Jürgen:
That’s great advice. And yeah, I think, the message, I mean that message has been coming through right throughout this interview, so I think it’s a really important message. And it applies to so many different things. So, Ian, thank you for your time today. I really appreciate it. I know you’re busy. Where can people reach out to you and say thank you for what you’ve shared?

Ian:
The easiest way to reach me is at IanAltman.com or on Twitter @ianaltman. Facebook you’ll find me at Ian Altman, just about anywhere. So, all of those, you know, my email address is ian@ianaltman.com. It doesn’t get much easier than that. And of course, if your audience has any questions, if there’s topics that they want me to cover, or if there are topics in my podcast that are of interest to them, I’m always happy to include those ideas, as I get some of my best ideas from people just dropping me emails or tweets saying “Hey, can you cover this?”

Jürgen:
Excellent. Thanks. And we’ll have links to all of those locations in the show notes, including links to your two books and to the podcast, so if people would like to get in touch with Ian and just ask him to cover some additional stuff on his podcast or blogs or even in the future book, that would be great. So, finally then, who would you like me to interview on a future Innovabuzz Podcast?

Ian:
Well, you know, I understand that Donald Trump is busy, because that would certainly be an entertaining one …

Jürgen:
That would be entertaining, yes!

Ian:
And, you know, I was looking through and you’ve had some great guests on your program. Some of the people I’ve had on my podcast who just really got me thinking. The one that, as much for your audience as for you, is when I interviewed Seth Godin there were multiple times during the interview where I forgot I was interviewing him, and I was taking notes and I was like, “Wow, that’s really something.” And then I realized wait a minute, I’m conducting an interview. But he said some things that really caught me off guard. So, that’s the one that I would say, if you can get Seth, that would be great. I know it’s not an easy interview to get. And I’ve been fortunate to have some really, really amazing guests on my program and I always say that if you surround yourself with enough smart people, that people might have the false impression that you’re one of them. And so I think I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of smart people on mine.

Jürgen:
Well that’s a great recommendation. Thanks. I mean, Seth Godin, I love his stuff. He’s just such great value, and he seems like a genuinely nice guy too. Now, I was just trying to recall one of my recent podcast guests also suggested I interview Seth, so Seth, we’ve got two people now who’ve asked for you to be on the Innovabuzz Podcast, so if you do listen to this, we will keep sending you emails and other invitations, and try to get you on our podcast.

Ian:
Well, you know what. If you can get him on, it will be … It’s a lot of fun; it’s a wild ride. And your audience will get great value out of it. So, thanks so much for including me in this group, Jürgen.

Jürgen:
Thanks, Ian. Thank you so much for sharing your time today and your insights with us. There have been some really clear messages here today. A lot of value out of this interview, and hopefully the audience will see that and take action. So, thanks for sharing your time on the Innovabuzz Podcast so generously today. I’ve really enjoyed it and learned a lot, so I wish you all the best for the future of your business and for the online learning launch, and for the new book, and all of the other things you’ve got going on. And let’s keep in touch.

Ian:
Jürgen, thanks so much. Always a pleasure.

Wrap Up:
Well I hope you enjoyed meeting Ian as much as I enjoyed interviewing him. There were so many good bits of advice in this interview – I have a long list of actions for myself and I may even blog about those separately. But do yourself a favour and listen to this again, and take notes!

All the show notes for this episode will be at innovabiz.com.au/ianaltman, that is I-A-N-A-L-T-M-A-N, all lowercase, all one word, innovabiz.com.au/ianaltman, for all of the links and everything we spoke about in this episode .

Ian suggested I interview Seth Godin who I’m sure you all know, on a future InnovaBuzz podcast. Seth, keep an eye on your Inbox for an invitation from me, for the Innovabuzz Podcast, courtesy of Ian Altman!

Thank you to our listeners for being here. We’d love you to review this podcast, because reviews help us get found and your feedback helps us improve. You can do that on iTunes or Stitcher or Pocket Casts and while you’re there, please subscribe so you’ll never miss a future episode. And if there is anything you’d like us to cover, or questions you want answered on a future podcast, please send them to us.

Until next time, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz.

Remember, if you don’t innovate, you stagnate, so think big, be adventurous and keep innovating!

Listen to the Podcast

Jürgen

Jürgen is the chief innovator and founder of Innovabiz who partner with innovative, exceptional business coaches to enable you to acquire more leads and more business by reaching your ideal target prospects with your message, so that you will achieve growth and be able to make a difference to more ideal clients. You can find Jürgen on LinkedIn, as well as on Innovabiz' Twitter, Facebook and Google+ Pages.

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