Unlike most experts in her field, Erika Andersen has an approach to being strategic that’s sensible and accessible. With her, you feel capable of creating the business, career and life you want. Nancy Tellem, Chief Media Officer & Executive Chairwoman, Interlude

About Erika Andersen

erika Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

Visit Erika's Forbes.com Blog

Latest tweets

  • Loading tweets...

Be Bad First

Be Bad First

Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future
Learn More...


Leading So People Will Follow

Proven leadership framework that creates loyalty, commitment and results.
Learn More...


Being Strategic

Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change
Learn More...


Growing Great Employees

Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers
Learn More...

Bg Ribbon Green

Archive for the ‘Work’ Category


Pain for a Purpose

I was talking to someone the other day about the willingness of many millenials to leave jobs where the culture is bad or the expectations are unrealistic or confusing.  We both agreed that, in general, we find it refreshing – and that we believe it will force many companies to think more deeply about how they operate and the cultures they create.

At one point, though, my colleague said, “But it can go too far.  Sometimes you have to suffer – there can be a purpose to pain.”

I watched my immediate mental response: That’s not true – thinking that we have to suffer condemns us to suffering.  But instead of saying that out loud, I kept listening and asking questions. After a few minutes, I thought I understood what she was really saying, and so took a stab at summarizing.  “You’re talking about pain on the way to improvement, vs. just submitting yourself to ongoing suffering.”

“Exactly,” she responded.

Then she told me a great story about two senior executives she knew, both of whom had reputations as tough, sometimes difficult and demanding bosses. However, she went on to note that many people she knew felt their time working for boss A was very valuable, and said they’d work for him in the future, if they had a chance – while most people had really disliked working for boss B, and would never want to work for him again.

The difference? Boss A, while tough, demanding and undiplomatic (to put it mildly) really focused on developing his folks.  His toughness was in the service of their getting better, thinking more deeply, being able and willing to embrace new possibilities. Under boss A, people grew. In contrast, boss B was tough because he could be; he was just mis-using his boss power.  There was no gain from the pain.

And I think this is a lesson millenials need to learn (and one I see my millenial children and colleagues learning as they get older and work longer).  Sometimes, you have to do things that aren’t very comfortable, in order to get what you really want.  And if you bail at the first sign of discomfort – whether you’re by yourself, trying to learn something; or in an organization, having to put up with some company BS; or dealing with a boss who may not be the most skilled or emotionally intelligent, but is genuinely trying to help you improve – you’re never going to get very far.

shutterstock_242603200It’s analogous to trying to get in better physical shape, where the price is the bodily discomfort of sore muscles and the mental discomfort of feeling like a klutz.  If you really want to get in better professional shape – to find out what you can love and be great at doing, and then to become excellent at doing it – the price is always some degree of mental, emotional, and even physical discomfort.

In other words: if you’re entirely comfortable, you’re probably not learning anything. And if you want to become world-class at doing anything, you’ll have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.


Read Be Bad First – Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future for more insights about being usefully uncomfortable.

Posted in learning, Thinking, Work


Building On What Came Before Us

Many years ago, my mom declared that she would knit each of us, her four children, a sweater.  She had lots of other stuff she was interested in doing, though, so she never quite completed the project. I’m pretty sure she finished my younger brother’s sweater, and she may have finished my older sister’s. In any case, when we went to clean out her house after she died in 2004, I discovered most of the sweater she had been making for me in a knitting bag with (fortunately) the pattern book she was using.  I was touched; I decided to take it home with me and finish it someday.

So here I am, twelve years later, finishing the sweater my mom started for me sometime in the 1990s.  I thought it would be a nice way to connect with her, and it is. It’s easy to imagine her working on it: getting irritated when an instruction didn’t make sense; swearing softly at having to undo and redo a mistake; her crooked smile of satisfaction at a beautifully complex bit of finished work.  And most of all, thinking of her thinking of me.

IMG_1720I’ve also enjoyed the mystery-solving aspect of it. It’s a cardigan, and she had completed the back, both fronts, and most of one of the sleeves.  So I had to determine where she was in the sleeve (there’s a cable design running down the middle, so I had to figure out exactly the correct row), and which of the six available sizes she had chosen to knit. And since I had only one skein of the yarn she was using, a yarn that hasn’t been made for many years, I had to find more of it (thank god for ebay). Finally, I had to figure out what size needles she was using in order to finish the ribbed trim on the front, neck and pockets.  I tried the size called for in the pattern, but that made stitches that were bigger than hers; I tried a couple of different size needles, knitting a few rows, pulling out the work and redoing it till I got it right. (You can see how it’s going in the picture above.)

Most of all, though, doing this is making me realize that I generally don’t give my mom enough credit for the foundation she provided to me throughout my life. So much of who I am as a professional, a parent, and a human being is grounded in her good example.  She taught me how to think critically; inspired my love of language and of writing; taught me that a parent’s job is to provide the tools kids need to create their own life and the moral compass to assure that life is one of contribution and value to others and to the world.  She taught me that humor can ease tension, and that it’s mentally lazy to accept “what everyone knows” as truth. She insisted that I take responsibility for my mistakes, and she was quietly proud of my accomplishments. She (and my father) taught me that judging, dismissing, or hating others for some part of who they are – skin color, sexual orientation, country of birth – is just plain wrong. She raised all four of us, two boys and two girls, with equal expectations that each of us would find work we liked and were good at, and build loving, strong relationships and families.

And as I’m reflecting on this, on my own failure to acknowledge her gifts to me, I’m wondering if we aren’t all guilty of this to some extent.  It’s too easy to believe that everything now is “new,” that we’re starting from zero every day and having to invent everything as we go. But even though almost every aspect of our world is changing faster now that at any previous time in history, we are able to navigate through this time of seismic change by virtue of the foundation laid down by those who have gone before.

Just as I can finish this sweater because of the start my mom made on it and the knitting skills passed down to me by her and many others, all that we do builds on the discoveries and advances of previous generations. The fact that I, a woman, can be accepted and respected as an author, speaker, consultant and business owner is built on the efforts and sacrifice of my feminist mother, my suffragette grandmothers, and millions of other women of past generations all over the world. The fact that I can share my thoughts with you here, one-to-one, perhaps without ever having met you, is a tribute to thousands of generations of humans who created language, invented ways to write it down and disseminate it (including the printing press), then created ever-more sophisticated computers, and finally harnessed the power of the internet.

It is both humbling and inspiring to acknowledge that we are links in this human chain. It makes me feel very grateful, and it makes me want to leave a legacy that will help move the world and everyone in it toward more joy, more collaboration, and lives of prosperity, independence and discovery.


The Power of Words…Especially For Leaders

My husband and I play a word game that consists of figuring out the negative names and the positive names for things.  Here’s what I mean:

  • For large properties owned by a single person or entity: “estate”=good; “compound”= bad
  • For someone who behaves in unpredictable ways: “eccentric”=good; “crazy” = bad
  • For people whose job is to execute someone else’s directives: “staff”=good; “minions”=bad
  • For a newly formed religious group: “sect” = good; “cult” = bad

We’ve found that there can be a world of difference in the implications of using one word vs. another to describe something. The two of us play this game because we find it fascinating, but it also makes me think about how often we can reveal our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about people and situations through our word choices.

And when you’re a leader, the power of that is magnified.  Let’s say you’re a manager, and you’re talking to someone about a guy that works for you who has lots of ideas and enjoys talking about them.  If you describe his behaviors as “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” your colleague will have a very different sense of him than if  you describe him as “loud” or “pushy.” Sometimes, sadly, people do this kind of subtle character assassination on purpose – when they want someone to be seen badly. But too often, we do it without conscious malice, simply based on unrecognized negative assumptions we have about someone…and don’t realize the negative impact it can have on them.

I was coaching someone once who had three direct reports.  When she spoke about two of them, Emma and Joe, she nearly always used “good” words. In her description, they were forward-looking, inspiring, big thinkers, and risk-takers. These were qualities that she saw and liked in herself and in them. The third report, Damon, was very different from the three of them, and she would describe him as old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive. When I pointed out to her how these words might come across to others, she responded that they weren’t negative words, and that she thought they were accurate. So then I asked her what impression her boss had of the three, based on her descriptors.  She thought for a moment, and then responded (I gave her high marks for honesty), “He probably sees Emma and Joe as big assets to the organization, and Damon as OK but not great.”

“Is that how you see him?” I asked.

“Not at all,” she acknowledged. “He’s really valuable.  He reins us in and keeps us from making impulsive decisions. We need him.”

Once she had seen that, it was easy for her to see how the words she used to describe him arose out of her feeling less comfortable with him and of unconsciously wanting him to be more like Emma and Joe.  And how those descriptors might lead others to see him in a less-than-positive way.  I asked her to think of alternative, yet still accurate ways of describing him that would let others see the value she saw. Instead of old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive,  she began to talk about him as being professional, thoughtful, measured, and considerate.

And not only did her altered description begin to change her boss’ perception of him, I noticed that she, Emma and Joe all started to treat him differently: to make better use of his complimentary strengths, and to more often acknowledge his contributions.

I encourage you to think about how you’re describing situations or people in a way that might subtly (or not so subtly) devalue them in your mind or to others.  How could you describe them differently to create more openness and appreciation?


Watching Business Evolve: The Craft Beer Revolution

I spent the weekend participating in TAP NY – billed as both the largest craft beer festival in New York State and the largest single-state craft beer festival in the US. It was enormously fun: I had the pleasure of helping my husband Patrick dispense his Great Life beer to hundreds of jovial people over the course of the two days.  And – thrilling to us –  his 1875 Milk Stout won the Bronze Medal in the Hudson Valley Stouts category.Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.36.14 AM

I love being involved (peripherally) in Patrick’s brewery partly because he’s so passionate about it, partly because brewing beer is intrinsically interesting (and I love finding out things), and partly because it’s so fascinating watching this business niche -craft brewing – explode.

On the TAP NY website, their own history page describes the geometric curve that is craft brewing. They started in 1998 at the Culinary institute of America in Hyde Park, NY with a handful of breweries, styling themselves the Hudson Valley Craft Beer and Food Festival. After just a few years they outgrew that site, moved to the Hunter Mountain Ski area, renamed the event TAP NY, and expanded to include all of NY state. Over the next few years, the festival continued to grow slowly, with about 25 breweries involved by 2007.  Then, in true geometric curve fashion, it really began to ramp up: 40 breweries in 2010, over 60 in 2013, almost 90 in 2015, and 116 breweries attending this past weekend.

When I wasn’t busy drawing 4-oz tasting glasses for the continual stream of folks who stopped by our booth, I wandered around and observed. In some ways, the craft beer culture is like any newly vital business sector, with lots of early entrants wanting to get in on the action.  It’s analogous to the early 20th century in autos, when there were literally hundreds of car makers in the US. Then the larger manufacturers began to take over through superior distribution and economies of scale, and the smaller auto companies began to go out of business or get bought up.  But beer has already been through that evolution: in the late 19th century, it’s estimated there were over 4,000 mostly small independent breweries operating in the US.  Then brewing began to go through the same kind of consolidation, helped along by prohibition.  In 1935 there were only about 750 breweries in the US, and by 1980, there were only about 50 brewing companies in the whole country. And, as one beer writer in the 1980s commented, “They are pale lager beers vaguely of the pilsener style…They do not all taste exactly the same but the differences between them are often of minor consequence.” Beer had become standardized and commercialized: what could be made most efficiently and while appealing to the largest number of people.

Then, in the late 1980s, the tide started to turn.  As people began to explore using locally grown and naturally sourced foods, they also started get interested in the possibility of drinking beer that was locally produced, with stronger and more interesting flavors. Once the trend started, it gained momentum every year, as evidenced by the growth of TAP NY and dozens of similar festivals across the country. In 1990 there were about 400 microbreweries and brewpubs in the US: in 2015, there were over 4000. We’ve now matched (and are on a path to exceeding) the high-water mark for American breweries set in 1873.

The big commercial breweries are still selling most of the beer drunk in the US – but the craft beer share of sales is significant and growing yearly: one recent statistic estimates that around 13% of the beer consumed in the US today is produced in craft breweries (doubled from just a few years ago).

I’m fascinated to see how this business of craft beer will continue to evolve.  In one way, it’s a return to the way humans consumed beer hundreds of years ago, where every village had its own brewer, often the owner of the local tavern and his wife.  And in another, it’s completely modern: a manifestation of the free-lance, entrepreneurial, artisanal explosion of  the last decade, where more people want to work for themselves and join together with small groups of like-minded others to create products and offer services about which they feel passionate. One element of the craft beer explosion I find really interesting: although still largely male, craft brewing seems not to be age-specific. As I wandered the booths this weekend, I noted some brewers in their 20s and some in their 60s – and everything in between. I also noted that nearly everyone, brewers and samplers alike, seemed to be having a great time.

And I don’t think it was just the mellowing effect of the beer itself: it’s fun to create things you love, it’s fun to connect with the people who make the things you consume, and it’s fun to consume things that are made with care and attention.

¡Viva la evolucion!


Spreading Good Ideas…Person-to-Person

First, my apologies for not posting last month.  It’s been a bit wild in Proteus-land lately, all for very good reasons. There’s a lot happening because we have a number of new clients and new consultants – which is fun and exciting, and requires attention and effort.

The main wildness-inducer for me, though, has been the launch of my new book, Be Bad First.  The official publication date was March 8 – but the pub date is less and less meaningful these days: the hard copy, e-book and audio versions were all available on Amazon before that date, and lots of interviews, reviews, and articles had already come out related to the book. Two things I’m especially excited about: an article about the book’s model in the March issue of HBR, Learning to Learn, and the book being selected as an Editor’s Choice by 800CEOREAD.

There’s a tremendous amount of  effort involved in putting out a book, not only for me, but for our publishers and publicists — and the Proteus staff (especially my wingman Dan) have done a lot to support the book’s success, as well. But it all seems worth it: having these ideas about learning and mastery out in the world is good for lots of people.  It supports the growth of our business, it gives our consultants more tools to help our clients, and it helps those clients navigate this complex world.

The part of writing a book that’s especially meaningful and almost magical to me is knowing that thousands of people I will never meet or know are reading it and, I hope, benefitting from it.  I love thinking about them finding out about it, deciding there’s something in it that might be interesting to them, and then starting to read or listen.  A long-time client and friend of mine was commuting into NYC on the Long Island Railroad a few weeks ago, and the woman across from him (he didn’t know her), pulled Be Bad First out of her bag and showed it to her seat mate, remarking that she was reading and liking it.  He took it from her and started reading the back cover – that’s when my friend Brad shot this picture.

IMG_3536[1] I loved having this little window into two people I don’t know (and may never know) being touched by the book and (I hope) exploring the ANEW model.  I love even more getting to see the viral aspect of this: she liked it, and then told someone about it. It’s lovely to imagine that happening all over the world (we’ve just heard that they’ve sold the rights in China, and are working on a rights sale in South America)…people being helped to become better learners, and turning to friends, family, colleagues, and telling them about it, so they can become better learners and more able to future-proof themselves, in order to thrive through change.

It’s one of the great things about living in a world where knowledge can spread so quickly and efficiently – one person, one idea, one action, can have a huge positive impact. So: do good things.


If you’ve read Be Bad First and enjoyed it, please spread the word by writing a review on Amazon.  Thanks in anticipation!


Impressive Nature, Impressive Human

My husband and I recently took a little mini-vacation to Grand Canyon National Park.  I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to get there – it’s not as though I’ve never had an opportunity before now.  All that aside, though: it was astonishing.  If you’ve never visited, all I can say is that pictures absolutely do not do it justice; it’s much more vast and beautiful and other-worldly than you can imagine. It made us feel small, but in a completely positive way; a tiny part of an awe-inspiring whole.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hopi House; Courtesy of Wikipedia

While we were there, I kept noticing buildings that I really loved.  There was Hermit’s Rest, the Hopi House, and the Desert View Watchtower. As it turns out, they were all designed by a woman named Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad in the first half of the 20th century as an architect and designer.  In the words of Wikipedia:

She was one of the very few female American architects in her day. She was the designer of many landmark buildings and spaces for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad, notably in Grand Canyon National Park. Her work had enormous influence as she helped to create a style, blending Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission Revival architecture with Native American motifs and Rustic elements, that became popular throughout the Southwest.

MJC ca 1893 by California Artist Arthur Mathews from the Program for Art on Film Web site

MJC ca 1893 by California Artist Arthur Mathews
from the Program for Art on Film Web site

I was so charmed by her buildings and intrigued by her story that I bought and read her biography. In 1902, Ms. Coulter began working for the Fred Harvey Company, which partnered with the Santa Fe Railroad to open the American Southwest to travel and tourism in the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries. Coulter was one of the only female employees of the Harvey Company at that time who was not a waitress – and the only woman with management responsibilities.

As I read about her, and looked at the buildings and interiors she designed – and the construction of which she oversaw and managed – I tried to imagine the combination of vision, strength of character and diplomacy required to be successful as a woman leader working with an all male group of colleagues and staff to establish a new kind of architectural style in a barely-civilized part of the US, at a time when any sort of woman professional was a rare creature indeed.

Talk about a high bar.

I’m inspired and humbled to find that she was able to do all of that, to leave us a legacy of wonderfully evocative buildings, structures that live at ease in the landscape of the desert southwest. Her designs are unpretentious and yet in harmony with the grandeur around them, while marrying indigenous Native American and Mexican styles with modern applications.

I suspect I’ll think of Mary Jane Coulter’s life and work from now on when I’m in what I believe is a difficult situation. I kind of feel as though my toughest challenges would seem like an easy day to her. It’s good to remind ourselves of those brave souls who have gone before us; it helps us find that pioneer inside.  It supports us to be bold in asking “Why Not…?” and in finding ways to do things that haven’t been done before.

Thank you, Mary…


Lights, Camera, Action!

I love being around people who are good at things. Last week and this, we’ve turned the NYC Proteus office into the Proteus pop-up studio: the swing office is the edit suite, the coaching space is the actors’ green room, the kitchen is craft services, and every other space is somehow being used as a set. Over five days of shooting, we’re creating 24 separate pieces of video, all of which will be up on ProteusLeader.com when it goes live in October.The still below is from the filming of the intro to my new book (coming from Bibliomotion in March), Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future.

2015-08-25 11.34.05[3]

Our partners in this endeavor are the talented, smart, funny and warm professionals of Capisco, a Paris-based film group led by Clement Jouve. It’s such a pleasure to work with them – I’m finding out so much, both about film-making and about great teams. Watching Jim, the director, work with the actors and Delphine, his second camera person, to get exactly the shots that make each scene work, and that give Max, the editor, just what he needs to make it all work.  And Max is, frankly, a magician.  It’s really fun watching him make each scene flow just the way it should (and make a two-camera shoot look like a three-camera shoot). Nicolai, the sound guy, is invisible and essential, and Clement keeps everything moving and connected.

They work together like a dance ensemble or a sports team: fluent, continuous hand-offs of action and responsibility, graceful and frictionless. Because they mostly speak French to each other, and I don’t speak French (except for, now, “c’est bon!” “je suis pret” and “quoi?”), I can observe the shape of their interaction rather than getting caught in the words.

And so I’m noticing that, like all high performance teams, they have clear goals (creating excellent film that meets the client’s needs), agreed-upon measures (clear standards of quality and time benchmarks for each piece of film), well-defined roles (everyone clearly knows what each person on the team is responsible for doing), simple process (how they operate together – it’s like a well-calibrated machine) and high trust (it’s obvious that they respect and have affection for each other, and feel that each person on the team is highly capable and will get results).

Observing a great team is really fun; getting to work with them is even more fun. Realizing that their excellent product is going to be an integral part of  ProteusLeader is the most fun. It’s so gratifying to have partners who, like us, believe that supporting people to be better managers and leaders is important, and who can help us bring to life our vision of an online learning platform that helps people build those skills in a way that’s simple, fun, and highly useful.

I’m so excited about having all of this to share with you in October!


New Ways to Get Better

I’m excited.  For the past four or five years, my partner Jeff and I have been  acknowledging to each other (and to anyone who cares to have the conversation with us) our need to have an online/mobile aspect of what we do available to our clients.  We recognized that if our core focus is, as we say, leader readiness, we needed to support leaders to be ready 24/7, not just when they’re with us in a coaching, training, or facilitated session.

We’ve been able to create some very good audio and video “nuggets” over the years, and we have lots of useful written material to offer (between this blog, my Forbes blog, other articles, and my books.)

But now….drum roll, please…we’re in the process of putting bite-size pieces of our existing audio, video and written content – plus a lot more great stuff that we’re now creating – into our new online/mobile learning resource, ProteusLeader.com.  It will be going live in October – so I’m giving you, dear reader, a heads-up now.  Partly because I just want to share it with you (as I said, I’m excited), but partly because I’d love your input if you’d care to weigh in. If you have suggestions for stuff you’d particularly like to see, or topics you’d like added, that would be hugely valuable for us.

Here’s how we’re envisioning it.  There will be 16 topic areas – the main areas we focus on in our work with leaders. Those topics are:

  • Accepted Leader
  • Be Bad First
  • Being Strategic
  • Coaching
  • Company Culture
  • Delegation
  • Giving Feedback
  • High Performance Team
  • Leading Change
  • Listening
  • Making Agreements
  • Managing People
  • Managing Your Career
  • Self-talk
  • Social Style
  • Tough Conversations

You can go straight to this list of topics from the home page (and then select one you’re interested in), or you can get to groups of related topics by selecting one of four “interest areas.” Under each of the 16 topics, we’ll have resources in three “buckets”:

  • See It/Hear It – video and audio nuggets focusing on that topic, offering models, tools, insights, or skill demonstrations.
  • Try It  – video, audio, and written activities to help you assess yourself, prepare for, and practice the skills in that topic.
  • Read About it – quick, practical articles about the topic that offer insight and recommendations.

So, what do you think? Anything you’d like that you don’t see listed? Any ideas for specific support in these topics?

I’ll keep you posted as we get closer to launch – but for now, I’d love to know what you’d find useful and interesting…

Thanks, as always, for being here.


Step Aside For The New

I was talking to a wonderful, wise woman today: I learned a lot from her, and I hope she also learned useful things from me.  She told me a great quote that she has made part of her email signature line:

                People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.

When she said it to me, my first reaction was to laugh out loud, in that surprised way that happens when something strikes you as completely and unexpectedly true. I’ve seen that very thing happen in corporate life dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past few decades.  While some people are pontificating at length about why something isn’t possible, someone else is quietly going about doing it.  For instance, I just found out that, even as Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to complete their first successful trials of a manned, heavier-than-air flying machine, the New York Times published an article from which the following is an excerpt:

The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years—provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.

— ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,’ published in theNew York Times, 9 October 1903.

It sounds really smart and well-reasoned (if somewhat smug and self-righteous), but it also turns out, as we all know, to have been complete and utter nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wright Brothers weren’t working for the New York Times, or any of the other thousands of people who were opining that what they were doing was impossible and foolish.  Where the quote above gets less funny, but even more true, is when the people doing the talking about what can’t be done are the bosses of the people who are able to do it.  That’s when innovation and creativity get torpedoed, and companies (if it gets bad enough and consistent enough) collapse.

For instance, I will bet you any amount of money that there were young people working for Barnes and Noble in 2005, who were trying to tell their bosses that e-readers were the wave of the future, and that they could build one of they just had the support, and those bosses rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea entirely, and blathered on about the strength of the B&N business model and how people will never give up the feel of a real book, or stop coming to bookstores, especially now that we have cafes and kids’ play areas and blah blah blah blah. And all the while Jeff Bezos and company were busy inventing the Kindle in a back room somewhere.

So the next time someone – especially someone who works for you – comes to you with an idea that you believe is just plain impossible, or impractical, or too expensive, or not how people want to do X….just shut up. Suspend your disbelief, and really listen.  Ask them to walk you through how they would do it, and what it would require.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to see how it could be done, and why it should be done…

And that could change everything.


Award-Winning Beer: An Entrepreneur’s Handbook

I have to admit upfront that this post is primarily a thinly-veiled excuse to say wonderful things about my husband. However, be assured there is an important life/work lesson here as well. My husband Patrick is in the final stages of setting up his craft brewery, and it’s been fascinating watching him travel down five parallel business-building tracks for the past year. I’m realizing that any successful entrepreneur needs to walk down these same paths.  (He’s doing this much better than I did 25 years ago, when I started Proteus, but still I recognize the pathways from my start-up days.)  Here’s what they are:

Facilities/Physical:  From the moment he rented his brewery-space-to-be last May, Patrick has been focused on a wide variety of physical, object-related tasks, from revamping the space (cleaning, painting, putting in trench drains, having the plumbing and electrical upgraded); to speccing out and ordering the brewing system and deciding how to set it up in the space; to switching our main vehicle from a car to a truck for schlepping purposes. Almost any entrepreneurial venture – even something like a one-person Cloud-based enterprise that seems not physical at all – requires asking and answering questions about physical requirements and doing the associated tasks.  Where are you going to work? What equipment will you need? What work processes will require physical space and how will you set that up?

Relationships: Patrick won’t be hiring any employees during the brewery’s early days – but that doesn’t mean relationships aren’t important to his success. He’s spent more time with his landlord, his plumber and his electrician that with most other people he knows over the past few months.  And he’s working to build good relationships with a much wider group as well: his suppliers, the folks who built his brewing system, and other local brewers, just to name a few.  Even if you’re starting a single-person enterprise (or at least single-person to start with), don’t underestimate the necessity of having a web of people around you who want to do business with you and are supportive of your success.  If you don’t tend to those relationships, it’s really hard to accomplish almost anything.

Organizational/Admin:  I now know that starting a brewery – even a small one – requires jumping through an astonishing variety of administrative hoops.  The federal permitting process was a daunting seven-month journey of frustration and bureaucratic nitpicking through the bowels of the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Watching him go through it and listening to his very legitimate complaints, I was astonished that anyone who doesn’t have a fleet of lawyers and accountants to call upon ever ends up opening a brewery.  The two-month long state permitting process was, by comparison, a walk in the park. Then pile on all the local requirements (building codes, business license, city council OK, etc. etc.) and the internal functional questions to be answered (How will we bill customers? What accounting program will we use?). Any entrepreneur who assumes he or she can just start producing their cool thing and make a million is courting disaster.  I think for most people, this is the least fun part of starting a business – but if you don’t think through it in a pretty structured way (or work with someone who can help you to do that), and build the time and effort required into your start-up plan, your business will grind to a halt before it even starts.

Product:  I’ve been truly impressed with the fact that, as he’s been fully immersed in these first three aspects of starting his business, Patrick has also been devoting a lot of time to making sure his product is extraordinary.  He’s spent the whole year doing exhaustive recipe development and testing on each of his four standard beers and two seasonals. Now that his system has arrived, once he gets it set up he’ll be going through a whole new product loop of figuring out how to replicate the quality he’s achieved — at 20x the volume.  He’ll be going from 5 gallon homebrews to 3.5 barrel (108 gallon) production batches.  It’s all too easy as an entrepreneur to think “I’ve got a great thing – it will knock everyone’s socks off.”  And yet – will it?  It’s essential that you build rounds of testing, ramping up and improvement into your pre-sales start-up planning.

Marketing and Sales: And yet, just having a great product or service isn’t enough.  You have to think clearly and practically about who your customers are, how you’ll let them know that you have something they need, and how to communicate that in a compelling way. This is Patrick’s least favorite part, and so the one in which I’ve been involved most involved.  We’ve had many branding discussions: that is, what are we promising, and how do we want to convey that promise in words and images? Based on that, we’ve put lots of thought into naming and labelling for each beer. Since we’re now a couple of months away from having beer to sell, we’re focusing on all the decisions, large and small, needed to connect our product with a delighted customer base. For instance, we’re only selling to restaurants and bars, vs. retail, so we identified the criteria for the hospitality businesses that could be attracted to our product and price point, and then made a list of all those businesses within about a 45-minute drive of the brewery.  Now we’re figuring out how to support and inspire our future customers to let their patrons know they’re carrying our beers. And then how to make it easy for those patrons – once they’ve tasted and liked the beer – to become vocal fans and advocates.  In other words, even great products don’t sell themselves.  Before you have product to sell, think about who your target audience is, why they need your product, and how you’ll let them know it exists and can meet their needs.  And do your best to do some market-testing beforehand: it’s easy to think people will love your thing just because you do, but you need to get some independent confirmation of that love.

And, happily, Patrick just received some great independent confirmation:  he sent his four standard beers (1875 Milk Stout, 1829 IPA, 1758 Witbier, and 1855 Cream Ale) out to six national competitions a few months ago.  Just last week, he found out that he won awards in four of the six: 2 gold, 3 silver, and 3 bronze medals – and each of his four beers won at least once.

All of which goes to show – when you take care to walk down the right paths as an entrepreneur, wonderful things can happen along the way.