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  • Robert Herjavec and Amanda Brinkman Help Stir A Small Town Business Revolution

    Small business and small towns are what built America, but they are both experiencing some worrisome issues adjusting to the 21st century.

    Many small businesses are falling victim to the advance of e-commerce and other technology, while younger people are leaving their small towns and moving to the live/work/play environments of urban areas.

    Still, small businesses and small towns matter big time. They continue to employ half of America’s workforce, servicing more than 60 million people living in communities outside major metropolitan areas.

    Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec, along with Deluxe Corp.’s Amanda Brinkman, are stepping up to help small towns and small businesses find their way. Deluxe Corp. assists small businesses with logo design, website development, email marketing and more. And we all know about Shark Tank.

    Their web series, Small Business Revolution on Main Street, debuts its second season, awarding one lucky small town’s Main Street with revitalization, guidance and money (more about this later).  The show runs on Hulu as well as its own website.

    The ultimate goal: to shine a spotlight on the vital impact that small businesses have on our economy, our communities, and our daily lives.

    The competition is conducted by nominations and majority votes (how American is that?). In its premiere season, more than 180,000 viewers voted to award Wabash, Indiana a revitalization worth $500,000.

    “It’s been really exciting to see how the businesses have thrived after we’ve worked with them,” Amanda says. She’s Deluxe Corp’s chief brand and communications officer, with a wealth of experience in internal marketing, brand management and interactive development.

    Of the nature of the series, she says, “Each of the businesses featured in the show had a different, unique problem, but they also all had to struggle with some of the same things. It’s exciting to see them get a better handle on their numbers that they struggled with, and really what an impact the marketing has made for all of these businesses.”

    Following the show’s finale, people from all 50 states nominated 14,000 towns that they believe deserve a Main Street revival for season two.

    The money is surely sweet, but even more valuable: useable advice from real businesspeople.

    “That’s the great divide in America today, isn’t it?” Robert tells Three Commas. We all know and love Robert from Shark Tank; as an entrepreneur, he’s built and sold several IT companies to major players like AT&T. In 2003, he founded The Herjavec Group, and it quickly became one of North America’s largest technology companies.

    He says,  “If you don’t know somebody who has run a business or knows marketing, where are you going to turn to for advice? Most businesses don’t fail because of lack of money. Most businesses fail because they don’t have guidance. When I was younger, I didn’t need more money. You could always go get money. I needed somebody to show me the way. In a small way, that’s what we are trying to do for these people.”

    The eight-episode series highlights the transformation of Wabash, Indiana, thanks not only to the financial investment, but also from smart business guidance and team spirit.

    Robert adds, “One of the reasons that Wabash won is that they came together as a community, but through the process, they bonded even more.”

    Amanda adds, “It was so fun to see them come together as a community like that. When small businesses work together, rather than trying to solve it on their own, you really see that come through. That’s what so beautiful about small towns. They have a real sense of community and they really rally around small businesses.”

    Of course, Robert’s helping hand is extremely valuable, from his years of experience working with and understanding small businesses and entrepreneurs.

    “It’s great to be involved.” Robert says. “It’s very near and dear to my heart. This is what we do on Shark Tank, but in some ways, this has even more impact. The numbers on Shark Tank have to be bigger, but these are entire communities. It has a much greater impact, not just on one business, but you see the entire community come together. And that’s been great.”

    In fact, this series and Shark Tank do share a commonality. Everyone loves a good backstory, especially if it’s about an underdog.

    “We’re all hungry to support brands where we know the story of the owner,” Amanda says, “where we can see that the purchase that we make can make an impact on someone’s life. We live in a world that is so isolated now. We have so much technology, but when you go to a small town and people look you in the eye and say hello or you go to the local restaurant and they know your name, there is something really great about that. I think this country is hungry for that kind of connection again.”

    True for sure, and Robert agrees, but he adds that the story – even if it’s amazing – is still not enough.

    “It’s a great time for that message, but people still want it at a great price, great service,” he says. “That’s the thing we’ve learned – it’s not a slam dunk. You’ve got to provide value.”

    The value, from what the series showcases, does comes through.

    “We feel like this [series] is a resource,” Amanda says. “It’s certainly impactful for the businesses we work with, but we feel like if you watch the season one episodes, you can get a lot of different insights and advice we gave around finances and margins and certainly around marketing. We definitely want this to be a tool that small businesses can rely on.”

     

    Click here to watch past episodes and vote for your favorite finalist.

    Voting is open Feb. 9-16, 2017, and the winner will be announced Feb. 22!

     

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  • Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior

    We like to think of ourselves as autonomous, independent, non-conformist, and maybe even a bit alpha, but sorry. We’re constantly making decisions and forming opinions because of the people around us. Whether you like it or not, those bitches have a constant impact on everything we do.

    Jonah Berger’s current book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior, is a follow-up to his 2013 book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Here, he drills down from the macro to the micro: how interpersonal relationships motivate and demotivate us on a daily basis.

    It’s not all bad news: sometimes this influence leads us to make better choices, or to avoid bad decisions. We almost never realize this – until now.

    Jonah is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and has been published in numerous newspapers and periodicals such as The New York Times, Science, and Harvard Business Review.

    Here, he sheds some light into the invisible influences that make us who we are, even though we think we got this, solo. He also clues us in on how to use invisible influence in business negotiations, which is pretty sweet.

    RON: Jonah, what the hell? Most of us like to think of ourselves as non-conformists and unique and apart from the crowd.

    JONAH: There is a great episode of South Park where one of the kids wants to be a Goth, and he’s hanging out with the Goth kids. They’re hanging out a Starbucks-type place. They ask him, “Do you want a coffee?” He says, “No, I don’t really drink coffee.” And they say, “You can’t be a non-conformist if you don’t drink coffee.”

    What I love about that example and that whole line of thinking in general is that even people who think they are not conformists end up looking like a lot of other people.

    RON: You’re also saying that being influenced is not necessarily a bad thing.

    JONAH: We talk about it as if it’s a four-letter word. We want to see ourselves as completely different from everyone else.

    Influence actually helps us make better and faster decisions. Imagine having to pick a restaurant without ever looking at Yelp, or picking a babysitter or a new movie without ever asking a friend. Life would be a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult. And so, often influence helps us.

    I think the reason we think it’s bad is that in American culture, we all like to think of ourselves as unique and special and that we are all distinct snowflakes and different from everybody else.

    Certainly, we are not the same as everybody else. In no way, shape, or form am I saying that we are exactly like the person next to us. We’re certainly different from them, but really what we are is a mix of everyone else who is around us.

    There is a saying: you are a mix of your five best friends. I think that’s true. We’re not identical to our five best friends, but if you put our five best friends together, and you create overlapping circles, we would be the mix of those things.

    We’re constantly being influenced by the folks around us: our friends, family members, the folks we work with.

    RON: The purpose of your book is to show that if we can understand the influence, we can harness its power.

    JONAH: By recognizing how it works, we can take advantage of it both at home and at work.

    RON: At the opposite end of our desire to be unique, we also want to fit in, and not be so different. How do you reconcile those two conflicting desires?

    JONAH: There are very different motivations that seem opposing.

    Studies will show that if we tell you that you are exactly the same as everyone else, you get upset. If we tell you that you are completely different from everybody else, you will also get upset.

    You may do everything you can to show that you are different, and yet, if you are told that you are completely different from everybody else, you start to worry: “Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe people won’t like me.”

    So we have these two competing motives: to be similar and different at the same time.

    It’s not one versus the other; it’s a combination of both of them. It’s called optimal distinction: similar but different at the same time.

    RON: Optimal distinction is a good way for entrepreneurs to think of their products or services.

    JONAH: I think this is a good way to think about introducing new ideas if you have a new product or service that you want to become successful.

    It’s all about being different. You focus on how completely different this product or startup is from everything else that came before it. But different isn’t [always] successful. If something seems too different or scary, people may not want it.

    Right in the middle is just right. It’s like Goldilocks: too similar – not so good; too different – not so good. But in between is just right.

    It’s a Goldilocks effect when we get that mix of similarity and difference: similar enough to feel familiar, but different enough to feel novel and change of pace.

    RON: What about the old standby “trusting your gut?” Isn’t that what we’re always told to do? How does influence play into gut trusting?

    JONAH Influence is our gut. It’s not our gut versus influence.

    Often, our gut feelings come from influence. Imagine walking into a store and seeing a shirt and saying, “I love that shirt.” We call that our gut. Why? Because we think that choice was driven by our own preferences.

    We don’t buy the shirt to fit in or to be like someone else. But we may have bought the shirt because we saw other people wearing a similar shirt, or a similar cut or a similar style. We may not realize that’s why we like it, but that’s what winds up shaping our behavior.

    It’s called mirror exposure. The more you see something, the more you like it. The more familiar it feels, the more you like it. We think that’s our gut, but it’s actually influence shaping our behavior through what we think is our gut.

    RON: Peer pressure is very important to us when we are teenagers, but does it play a part in influence in adulthood?

    JONAH: Certainly. Many companies describe themselves as “The Uber of…” There are huge herd effects in what areas people want to live in, what styles of clothing people wear, what languages people use.

    We think of peer pressure as negative. We like to think that our choices are being driven by ourselves. We don’t realize that peer pressure shapes us whether we are kids or adults.

    RON: How does invisible influence affect our personal relationships?

    JONAH:  On a first date, the more language that overlaps, the more likely you are to go on a second date. The fact that our language is similar makes us like someone more.

    At the same time, there is some evidence that being different is also good. We don’t want someone who is exactly like us. We may want someone who is a little bit different. It ends up being a little bit of both. Our potential partners are not exactly the same and not completely different. Again, it’s somewhere in the middle: familiar enough, but different enough to be distinct.

    RON: How does invisible influence work in business dealings?

    JONAH: Imagine you and I are stuck in a tough negotiation - maybe it’s the price of a contract or maybe you are buying my company. It doesn’t look like we are going to figure out a way out. We seem far apart. We don’t trust one another.

    Researchers have found a way to reach an outcome when all looks like it is lost. The trick: mimicking or mirroring their negotiating partner; suddenly imitating – whether it’s the language, the mannerisms, or the facial tics of the person they are talking to.

    If you would lean back in your chair, well, maybe I would lean back in my chair as well. If you crossed your arms, maybe I would do the same. Not so obviously that I could tell that you are mimicking, but subtly.

    It’s the same thing in a sales context. Mimicry creates a sense of affiliation, like we are part of the same tribe. It increases influence and facilitates persuasion, because it creates a sense that we are part of the same tribe. Don’t just listen – emulate them. Be a chameleon, mirroring their behavior.

    RON: The new power players and CEOs wear T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. You call this invisible influence “countersignaling.” How so?

    JONAH: All of these things are a response to the environment. How you dress, what you drive, the music you listen to -- what does it say about you?

    We used to think that dressing up signaled success in business, or having a flashy car signaled wealth. The problem is: when other people come along and imitate those signals that aren’t true members of that group, [those signals] start to lose their meaning.

    High-powered business executives always wear suits. Great. So when we see someone wearing a suit, we know that they’re a high-powered business executive. But when not-so-high-powered business executives start wearing suits, we don’t know if they are the real thing or a wanna-be or a poser.

    People in startup cultures don’t want to be thought of as some old, fuddy-duddy business leader. They want to say, “I’m part of the new school, the new generation.” They are trying to contrast themselves. So instead, they dress down. They’re saying, “I don’t have to dress up to be successful.” Dressing down becomes just as strong a signal as dressing up.

    RON: The biggest mystery of all: Brooklyn hipsters, lumbersexuals, punk rockers, goths, hippie chicks. They are all claiming their individuality, but they all tend to look and dress alike.

    JONAH: Birds of a feather flock together. People who like similar things tend to hang out with one another. People who tend to like similar music tend to like similar clothes. One way to think about it: if we both like movies a lot, we both may like popcorn a lot.

    These groups are trying to diverge from the mainstream; they’re trying to be different. Hipsters and punk rockers don’t want to look like the mainstream, but they don’t want to be the only person dressed that way, because no one else can tell what it means. The challenge is: multiple people have to do something for it to be a signal. Signals are socially constructed.

    RON: We’re not completely clueless to invisible influence, right?

    JONAH: We do see influence. It’s not like we never see it. But the only place we never see influence is in ourselves. We don’t often see how we can use influence to affect others.

    The goal of this book was to help people spot influence in the world around them, and by understanding that influence, living happier and more successful lives. When we understand how it works, only then can we take advantage of it.

     

    Click here to find out more about Jonah and his work.

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  • The Airbnb Story: This crazy idea disrupted an industry and generated billions.

    Airbnb is the online travel platform that has become – in less than a decade – the largest provider of accommodations in the world. Not Hilton. Not Sheraton. Not Holiday Inn – not any part of the $500 billion hotel industry.

    Leigh Gallagher is the first to write a book on this incredible entrepreneurial adventure, with the company’s current valuation at $30 billion (that’s very close to Marriott).

    Her book, The Airbnb Story, tells the tale of a wacky idea that was unlikely to succeed. The cast of characters includes regulators wanting to curb its rise, a cottage industry of entrepreneurs making big-time cash while Millennials found new places to crash. Overall, Airbnb introduced a unique way to see the world.

    Leigh is an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine. She is also a co-chair of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit and oversees Fortune’s 40 Under 40 editorial franchise. Her first book, The End of The Suburbs: Where The American Dream Is Moving, has been called “prophetic.”

    Here, she tells Three Commas about the Airbnb backstory.

    RON: What drew you to the Airbnb story? I’m sure it was begging to be told.

    LEIGH: Well, that was part of it. There hasn’t been a book written about this company yet, and it’s such an incredibly disruptive story. It’s a social and business phenomenon. A lot of people know the basic origins of the story, but once I got into it, there was so much more.

    RON: The story was filled with irony and unexpected twists and turns.

    LEIGH: Airbnb started as a fringe idea that no one thought would work. And it not only became successful, but it became one of the biggest privately held startups of this current wave of tech euphoria.

    From that alone, I thought it merited a deeper study, but you add on the fact that it was started by three outsiders, almost accidentally. Nobody wanted to touch it. Everybody thought it was a crazy idea.

    RON: The Airbnb team was not even the first to come up with the idea.

    LEIGH: Upon further study, I found that there were many companies who basically rented out homes. The question is: why did Airbnb take off?

    It’s a combination of things. Part of it is that they put everything on the same platform in a very user-friendly way. You can’t really overstate how important that was. Part of the design was building the payment right into the platform so, in one click, you can make a booking. That was new.

    Another understated point of difference is that Airbnb was urban at the beginning. It was an urban phenomenon whereas all the others – except for maybe Craigslist – were vacation rentals at beaches and mountain towns. Airbnb saw themselves as something quite different. The consumer did too. That’s why they took off with Millennials.

    You didn’t have to own the property to profit from it. You could be the renter of a little studio, and you could suddenly monetize that property for yourself.

    RON: The word “disruption” is really appropriate here. This could have been the biggest disruption of all, right?

    LEIGH: It really was. The word today could get overused, but it’s a classic case of disruption. Because it was so unexpected – because it came from the least likely people you would expect – an idea that would disrupt the hospitality industry.

    You have this business that has been around for centuries – the hotel industry – that has been completely upended by Airbnb.

    At first, [the hotel industry] was very dismissive of it. It took a long time for them to consider it a threat. They still say it doesn’t really compete with their business, which is a very hard case to make. And the bigger Airbnb gets, the more it disrupts the hotel industry.

    The true sign of disruption is when the giants being disrupted start to adopt the same product that the disruptor has brought to the table. And we’re absolutely seeing that with hospitality right now.

    RON: Could the success of Airbnb be a generational thing? As an aging baby boomer, I really like my hotel, with its amenities and a pool. I’m not sure I would happily adapt to this model.

    LEIGH: It definitely started out as a Millennial thing, and it still very much is. I think a big part of the reason as to why it took off is that they have different values than the rest of us have.

    I spoke with a former hotel executive in his 40s and he said, “I completely missed this. I thought, ‘why would anybody want to do this?’” He said that he imposed his 40-something values and biases onto this idea, whereas the Millennials  -- for one thing, they are obsessed with everything being artisanal and local and adventurous and different. They are somewhat distrustful of large organizations. For them, it is not so weird to have a relationship that is forged “digital only” and then to bring it into the real world. It’s not so much of a stretch for them to go sleep in the room of someone they only recently connected with online. For the rest of us, it took a long time for people to go with that.

    RON: But there are plenty of non-Millennials who find Airbnb to be fantastic.

    LEIGH: There is a woman in my book who is a suburban mother of three in Alpharetta, Georgia. She loves Airbnb and uses it all the time. She convinced her husband to use it, and he was very reluctant. As she says in the book, he loves his “American bathroom.” They went to Europe [using Airbnb], and now they do it all the time. Her friends in Georgia think she’s crazy. They would much prefer the air-conditioned Hilton. She would much prefer to go to a charming garden apartment and sit outside and talk to the person who lives there and can tell her where to go. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for many more people than you might think.

    RON: You got to talk with Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky. Has success changed him?

    LEIGH: He educated himself on how to become a CEO. He went to all corners and all sources of the business world to do this. He shamelessly asked mentors from Jeff Besos to Warren Buffet, all these leaders. But he has a natural affinity for ring-leading and leadership.

    He would say that what was harder for him was actual management: having difficult conversations with people, hiring people, letting people go. He has much more on his plate now then he did when I first met him, but he’s managed to scale as a leader.

    I think that is an interesting playbook because we’re going to see more cases like this, where people who don’t come from traditional business backgrounds suddenly find themselves in these type of positions.

    RON: For Airbnb, it hasn’t been all success all the time. There are some crazy stories of major fails.

    LEIGH: Things have gone wrong. There have been some horrible accidents. There have been some deaths. Very bad things have happened. There is no way it’s going to be perfect. It’s impossible.

    I have a story in the book about a family in New Jersey who rented out their home. There was a golf tournament coming to town and they thought they were renting to a golf writer from Golf Digest, and it ended up being a humungous party for 400 people. There was a DJ and tickets sold. Nobody got hurt and there wasn’t even much property damage, but there are all kinds of opportunists out there. It’s a public platform. So it’s a risk.

    Airbnb tends to get headlines. This is the brave new world, and we should be alert and aware that these things can happen.

    RON: What has been the hotel industry’s response to Airbnb now that we’re past the startup stage?

    LEIGH: They still try to say that they had a record year last year, and Airbnb has been saying this too. But [the hotel industry] is finally starting to recognize that this is something that struck a chord, and it struck a chord with consumers for a reason.

    So now, the industry is experimenting with its own ways to dip a toe with this idea. They even have a new name for this sector of the market – they call it alternative accommodations.

    RON: It’s astounding that people are actually making a living – a good living – with Airbnb.

    LEIGH: There are a lot of people making a living on Airbnb.

    I have a few hosts in the book who are making six-figure incomes. Some people buy multiple properties and turn them into a business.

    Airbnb has been caught up in legal fights around this very issue. Depending on the market, they push back against this with various degrees of forcefulness.

    Brian Chesky likes the idea that there are a lot of entrepreneurs on the platform. They make a lot of money. This is a real business. It takes some work. There are a whole lot of cottage industries that are there to help with the cleaning, the pricing, analytics, anything you might possibly need. It’s a real booming economy. And even some of those startups are starting to get venture funding of their own.

    RON: In your research for the book, what surprised you the most?

    LEIGH: I was surprised at just how painful the early days were. They all say that that was the hardest time of their lives. It might sound glamorous now, but it was not. They almost went under. They almost did not get this company off the ground. It was only through hustle and some key assists at a few critical points, and with a little bit of luck and timing, that they did it -- and with some very ingenious, clever maneuvering on their part. That, to me, was a part of the story that I didn’t really know.


    9 lessons for entrepreneurs from The Airbnb Story:

    • The big idea is not always the idea you think will be the big idea.
    • Just because it isn’t working doesn’t mean your idea is fundamentally flawed.
    • It’s better to have 100 customers who love you than a million who sort-of like you.
    • It’s OK to do some things that don’t scale.
    • Be pathologically curious and shameless about asking for advice.
    • Spend time in person with your users. Don’t just interview them; observe them as they use your product.
    • Focus on culture early; don’t wait for a company to get big first.
    • When a crisis hits, don’t hide or be silent; respond and, if you are at fault, apologize.
    • It’s hard to fatally mess your company up. You’re allowed to make a lot of mistakes.

     

    Click here to find out more about Leigh Gallagher and The Airbnb Story.  

     

     

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  • Too Small To Fail: Entrepreneurs Turn To Alternative Financing in The Unbanking of America

    Big banks’ marketing is oh-so slick: they position themselves as your concerned, generous friends who are right behind you as you build your business.

    Yet the cold, hard truth, which is getting easier to see everyday, is this: the only thing banks pay to small business people and entrepreneurs is lip service.

    How banks make money: monthly fees and overdraft charges (one bank VP named his boat Overdraft. How cute is that?). The only business being built from this scheme is the banks’ business, not yours.

    In addition, nearly half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck – and this is not the kind of customer that interests banks. And speaking of interest, have you checked the rate for savings accounts lately? Keep your loose change in that coffee can.

    As banks don’t really give one be-bop about entrepreneurs and small business people, a growing number of them are voting with their feet and saying, “close my account.” It’s the financial equivalent of cable chord cutting, and it’s happening at a dizzying rate.

    There is a new game in town that’s actually not so new, but it’s becoming a strong contender to banks: check-cashing businesses and payday loan establishments. Once considered as shady as loan sharks (and many of them were), they now are rewriting the rules of how non-wealthy Americans take control of their finances and their destiny – and the money they need right now.

    In her book, “The Unbanking of America: How The New Middle Class Survives,” Lisa Servon explores the New National Normal. This is an inside look at how the American banking system is broken, and its customers are fleeing.


    Lisa is a professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, but she takes time out to tell Three Commas about the state of the new banking industry.

    RON: I guess the 2008 financial crisis was the very beginning of the ride down this rabbit hole.

    LISA:  It’s not just a one-off. If you look at the fines that the larger banks have had to pay, it’s a larger structural problem. There are patterns of abuse and deception.

    RON: I would imagine that Millennials are also contributing to this sea change, as they are changing so many other things that used to be considered here to stay.

    LISA: You see Millennials doing things differently. They didn’t grow up – as you and I did – going to the bank with their parents. They’re much more comfortable using cell phones and computers to do what they’re doing, and they’re the largest generation ever. So things are going to change. It’s only a matter of time.

    What’s interesting is that the banks don’t really seem to be adapting. It’s not a sector that’s known for innovation. Some of the larger banks are not limber and flexible enough to move the way they need to.

    RON: Payday loan joints and check-cashing places never had a good reputation, but here they suddenly are, with a shiny new coat! Everyone is taking a new and different look at them. Should we still be cautious?

    LISA: The popular wisdom is that they’re all predatory, they’re all sleazy, they’re all trying to get over on their consumers. What I’m saying is that with any industry, you have good actors and bad actors. There is always a spectrum. Capitalism is set up for that.

    They story we hear is that bankers are good and that these guys are bad -- and neither one of those things are true. The people I’ve worked with – especially the check cashers – they are small businesspeople.

    Comparatively, their prices are pretty good. The people making decisions to use them are usually making very rational decisions, given their situation and given the other options that are available.

    We’ve created this skewed debate of good vs. bad, and it’s actually more complex than that. The good guys aren’t the good guys and the bad guys aren’t the bad guys.

    RON: Part of the appeal and effectiveness of your book is that you actually got down in the weeds, actually working at these places, to find out what’s what.

    LISA: What I’ve tried to do in the book is refocus people’s attention onto the [customers]: here’s why people are making the decisions they are making. Here are what their options really are. And it’s set in the declining and deteriorating conditions for the American worker. You used to be able to go into a bank and get a $500 loan with a handshake. You can’t do that anymore.

    My parents were schoolteachers and we didn’t live a fancy lifestyle, but they were able to buy a house, save for retirement, and save for my sisters and me to go to college. A lot of teachers now couldn’t do that. That’s the big background picture.

    RON: That old feeling of putting your money in a bank and feeling safe – that’s over.

    LISA:  We have banking and policy sectors changing so that there is no guarantee that when you go into a bank and get a bank account that you are going to get a package of safe, affordable services.

    The banks are trying to sell you as many products as they can in order to up their fee income. They used to not depend on fees. It was a different business model and it was a different policy environment.  The whole game has changed.

    RON: It really boils down to the customers the banks really want. And I don’t think it’s the average, middle-class person.

    LISA: The banks don’t really care about serving the low-to-moderate-income customer. It’s hard to interpret the message differently.

    In a way, I get it. They are for-profit companies. Their primary mission is to maximize profit for their shareholders. And that profit model has changed a lot. So banks are not making as much money as they used to, especially the larger ones. They’re making their money off of fees and international deals. The everyday customer has become a less important part of their business model, so it makes sense that they would give us less attention, because that’s not where their money is coming from anymore.

    RON: What was it like to work in payday loan and check-cashing places?

    LISA: I wasn’t thinking about my own banking history much when I started, but working in those places brought me back to the type of bank I went to as a child. With check cashers and payday lenders, people are in there all the time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love doing my banking online, and yet those kind of relationships that I had and my parents had are replicated at these places. There are relationships between the tellers and the customers, and that is certainly something people value.

    I’m really glad I took the jobs, because I could really see how people were transacting their money. People would come in to get their check cashed, but we also do bill paying. They would spread their bills out in front of them on the counter, and pay this much to their phone bill and that much to Con Ed so that they don’t turn the lights off. We’d pay their bills, and whatever they had left over in cash was what they had until the next paycheck.

    RON: Entrepreneurs and small businesspeople seem to benefit from this alternative.

    LISA: I write about a guy named Carlos in the book. He’s a contractor. He has a big check, and I’ve seen the way he was working with his money and the fact that it made sense for him to cash the check and leave $100 on the table. That was basically to get the money today, because he needed to pay his workers in cash the next day.

    The popular media has focused on why these people are paying so much, but when you’re there, you’re like, “oh, now I get it.”

    So they are going to pay their bill now and there is no risk of overdrafting. There is no risk of that check getting lost in the mail. That bill is paid now and they know that there is money to do it. They pay the money and they know what they have left. There is no checking their account all the time to making sure their check cleared. It makes sense.

    So rather than implying that people are ignorant for not doing their banking the way that you and I do, what I hoped to do was show that the decisions are rational, even if they are expensive.

    RON: So it actually makes more sense than a bank. Imagine that.

    LISA: Entrepreneurs don’t have a lot of margin, especially at that very small end where you are a sole proprietor, or if you have contractors working for you.

    There is a real unevenness too – let’s just say, if you make stuff, you have to buy materials to fill the order and you may not be paid for 30 or 60 days.

    Entrepreneurs always had this issue of very lumpy income streams. You need working capital. You need money to help you get by. I had talked to quite a few entrepreneurs who had taken out payday loans for just those situations.

    A lot of small businesses use credit cards to finance their businesses – much of that credit was just removed from the market. So you have people who had figured out a way to operate using credit cards, for better or worse, but suddenly that’s not there for them. This larger environment helps explain why people have turned to other sources of credit.

    As banks have gotten bigger, you’re less likely to have local bankers who know your business or know you. It’s harder for the small businessperson to go in and get a loan.

    RON: As we discussed before, Millennials are changing consumer financial behavior that sidesteps banks, like online crowdfunding.

    LISA: They’re certainly drawn to it. They’re comfortable getting money that way, but they’re also comfortable giving or lending money that way. It’s a change in consumer behavior, and it’s a really important one. Millennials talk to each other. That’s the way they get information.

    The problems are structural. When you have such a change in the deal that the average worker gets, so much movement in the gig economy, and shifts from full-time work to part-time work, it doesn’t exist the same way.

    Millennials are saying, “I don’t think I can buy a house and have a kid.” Things are changing, but we are still telling the myth of the American Dream, as though it’s still a reality. The game, the bargain, has fundamentally changed.

    RON: Where are you seeing this going in the long-term?

    LISA: I hope there will be enough of a potential to build a coalition around what so many people have in common but don’t realize. Things are screwed up, but there is a different kind of a wake up that’s happening.

    Click here to find out more about Lisa Servon.

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  • Get Into The Ride: Adam Carolla’s Chassy Media Drives Awesome Automobile Documentaries

    “It got down to this: we’re doing everything ourselves anyway. Why don’t we just do this last part ourselves too? Start a website and sell it.”

    So says Adam Carolla, entrepreneur/comedian/racer/bestselling author/podcast king. He’s talking about his new company, Chassy Media, which produces and markets historical documentaries, particularly about automobiles and racing.

    The Chassy website is a premium platform which delivers content for the automotive connoisseur to rent, stream, or purchase.

    Adam says, “We realized that if we were going to start making movies -- and especially with the automotive theme -- instead of taking it to some place in New York to a bunch of hipsters who really have no idea what they were dealing with, why not just keep it in-house?”

    For this venture, Adam partners with Nate Adams, a Hollywood screenwriter who has produced and directed feature films, documentaries, television projects, an EA video game, and over 40 commercials.

    Adam and Nate have collaborated on two films for Chassy, as well as the comedy Road Hard, which starred Adam Carolla himself.

    “We’ve already sold about 10,000 units on Chassy.com, and it’s brand new,” Adam says. “We basically just got started.”

    Good news, for sure, but Adam didn’t drive down this road with a map.

    “I didn’t know what to expect.,” he says. “I didn’t know if people were going to go Chassy.com or buy it on iTunes or Amazon. I didn’t have any real thoughts. I’m usually running around so much that I don’t have time to fully consider what’s going to work or what’s not going to work. It just seemed like, all right, let’s do it. I don’t want to say that it exceeded my wildest dreams, because I really didn’t have dreams about it. But it’s a very good base, a really good jumping off point. We sold a lot of units.  It’s worked out nicely.”

    The latest offering, The 24-Hour War, tells the astonishing story of the racing rivalry between automakers Ford and Ferrari during the 1960s.

    Ferrari was the most successful racing team in the world, winning consistently at LeMans. Ford, humiliated by GM’s Corvette on the race track and in the showroom, asked Ferrari to team up to beat GM. The negotiations eventually crashed, so Ford set out to build its own supercar: the legendary GT40. This story leads up to the 24-hour LeMans race between Ford and Ferrari, and the breathtaking history that takes us to the finish line.

    The underdog tale has a universal appeal, and you don’t have to be a gear head to appreciate it.

    “You don’t have to be into cars,” Adam says. “It’s a story. It doesn’t require preexisting knowledge. You don’t have to be a car guy. You just have to be into a good story.”

    Another Chassy offering, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, profiles the side of the actor most of us never knew: car racer. His racing life spanned 35 years and almost sidelined his acting career. During that time, he won four national championships as a driver and eight championships as an owner – and he began racing when he was 47-years old.

    Another compelling story based on, as the website itself calls it, “gasoline-fueled passion.”

    “It’s just guys out competing, pure and simple,” Adam says. “That part is never going to change. Technology will change, but the part where guys compete is never going to change.”

    Taking a detour from auto racing, Chassy also offers The Bug: The Life and Times of the People’s Car. It explores the super-ironic story of Volkswagen’s dark start in Nazi Germany, its groundbreaking advertising campaign out of New York, and its iconic hippie days during the Summer of Love. The VW Bug formed a very special bond with its millions of owners (actor Ewan McGregor is on hand to explain further). The odd-looking car became one of the most successful (and successfully marketed) products of all time.

    Does screening some joints about wheels sound like a plan? Without a doubt, there is an audience for this.

    “It’s working for us,” Adam says. “You don’t get rich, but as long as we can pay for the next one -- as long as the math pencils out, and so far it has been, then we can keep just building the library.”

    Click here to find out more about Chassy.

    Follow Adam here.

     

     

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  • How TV Producer Peter Engel Was Saved By The Bell

    “It was unbelievable,” marvels TV producer Peter Engel, when visiting the Saved By The Bell diner in Chicago. “It was almost like I stepped back in time. I was sitting in the famous Bell booth. That’s where I used to sit with the kids after rehearsal and give them notes.”



    The notes must have been brilliant, because the teen-oriented sitcom Peter created and produced, Saved By the Bell, is the stuff of TV legend. Even Peter’s credit (Executive Producer - Peter Engel) has become iconic (to his credit!).

    The original series, about an assorted group of impossibly good-looking high-school friends, ran from 1989-1993, and spawned a spinoff, TV movies, endless trivia questions and irrational fascination.  

    When the gang reunited on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2015, the segment generated 35 million hits on YouTube and broke the Internet. 

    “I never thought anyone would see our show,” he admits about its humble debut, over a quarter century ago. “We did premiere in prime time in the summer of 1989. The critics brutalized us in New York, San Francisco and LA. But the tapings were like a Beatles’ concert. It was wonderful. The cast was magical. They never, ever missed, ever.”

    Peter credits much of that success to the charm and talent of the cast; in particular, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played the scheming, charming, practically sociopathic Zack Morris. “People thought [Mark-Paul] was Zack in real life, and he wasn’t,” Peter says. “He was a very serious-minded young man, and was very serious about his acting. He wasn’t Zack, and a lot of the crew would treat him like he was Zack. That’s why he was such a great actor, and he still is.”

    Although most older series have gotten lost in the digital-age shuffle, Bell continues to entertain new generations of kids on new screens and devices.

     “We’re selling more [Saved By The Bell ]T-shirts now than we did 25 years ago,” he says.  “Every month, I’m approving new artwork.”

    Peter has written a memoir, I Was Saved By The Bell, about the experiences the show has brought him – both as an entrepreneur and – eventually -- a player. He’s also a well-respected producer of many other television series, including NBC’s Last Comic Standing.

    Of Last Comic, Peter says, “Jay Mohr came to me with the idea. The original title was Comic House [to be filmed like Big Brother]. I was under contract to NBC and we sold it. That summer, while we were shooting the pilot, American Idol came on. So the network said, ‘do a national comedian search: the search for the funniest person in America.’ That was so much fun – because comics --, forget the money, the prizes – the thing they want most is exposure. Four hours of exposure, even if you don’t win. And five if you get to the final five or six.”

    In fact, Bell and Last Comic have something in common, thanks to Peter’s savvy knowledge of what translates well in television.

    “If you can make them laugh, you can make them cry,” he says. “Those are the best shows, with the best actors. They have you laughing, and before you know it, you’re crying. It’s emotion. The best shows are the ones that make you laugh and cry.”

    Saved By the Bell was played mostly for laughs, but all true fans remember the more tender moments, like when Jesse (Elizabeth Berkley) became hooked on caffeine pills, or the endlessly frustrating breakups and regroupings of Zack and Kelly (Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani-Amber Theissen).

    Zack and Kelly’s unified heart was repeatedly broken (not including reruns), but that’s nothing compared to the rejection and disappointment that Peter endured in real life.

     “You can’t ever give up,” he says. “I’ve had my heart broken so many times, both professionally and personally. But that’s how you come off the floor. That’s what makes successful people different.”

    Peter feels this goes for our country as well, just as we’re coming out of an especially difficult year.

    “We [as a country] always mess up, since George Washington,” he says. “We as a people always get back up. It’s how you get back up, not how you get knocked down.“

    The failed projects made Peter appreciate his huge successes.

    “There were so many shows that broke my heart,” he says. “If you don’t have those, you don’t fully appreciate when you have an enduring hit that impacted a whole generation. And more generations now.”

    Although Peter wrote a successful memoir and is responsible for one of the most adored shows in TV history, he doesn’t live in the past.

    “I don’t read yesterday’s newspaper,” he says, “but I think television today is doing stunning things. The problem is, there is so much clutter that [good TV] is hard to find. But with Netflix, you can have your opportunities when you want them. Television is doing tremendous things, and there’s so much of it.”

    Like all entrepreneurs, Peter’s dream of working in and creating television stayed secret at first. Often, when an idea is first announced, it is automatically met with skepticism.

    “That’s why I went to textile school,” he says. “I was embarrassed. I didn’t think my family, or anyone I knew, would take me seriously. And then I went to NYU Film School, and worked at NBC as a page. And ironically enough, that’s where I ended up.”

    Peter has advice for those who want to break into television, which is suddenly hotter than movies and hungry for content.

    “Movies are a directors’ medium,” he says. “Television is a writer’s and executive director’s medium. I tell people, the best way in is to write. No one cares who you are. If it’s on the page, it can be on the stage.”

    For entrepreneurs in general, Peter says, “You have to dream big, because big dreams are harder to accomplish than little ones. And you can’t let anyone steal your dreams. You can’t let anyone frighten you. And you have to never, ever give up. I had so many shows that coulda-shoulda-woulda, but didn’t. I say if you can make a living at anything that you love doing, you’ll have a great life.”

     

     

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