This interview is episode 1 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies, an interview series with entrepreneurs and experts.
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Here's the transcript:
Michael Baldwin: Well, it’s funny. The interesting thing and fortuitous thing for my work is, you can argue that I’ve done this work for 35 years because I was doing it the entire time I was in advertising. And then in earnest, in the last 8 years, doing it for real for my consulting practice. But what’s come up, so I’m always calibrating, and what’s sort of come up recently as a sort of overall, universal issue is, I don’t know where to begin. That’s one huge one. I don’t know where to start. I just got tapped to speak at CES for half an hour on XYZ, I don’t really know where to begin. I just know I’m nervous about it and I’m worried about what to do. So that’s a huge one. The other gigantic common denominator around the world which is see all the time is people don’t know that a slide is basically a billboard in disguise, and when…
Josh: What do you mean by that?
Michael: Meaning you should be able to read the entire content, to absorb the entire content of any slide whether it’s imagery or words or whatever it is, in under 10 seconds. In under, probably, 5 seconds because if you imagine you’re driving on a freeway and you go by a billboard, you don’t see if for very long, but the ones that are done right, you get it immediately, because it’s consumable at 55 miles an hour in 5 seconds. So people don’t understand that they need to reimagine how they think about slides. Currently, most people think about slides as a repository for as much information as you can fit on the screen. Most common problem.
Josh: And when you think about that, sometimes isn’t that cultural within a company? Like everybody does their slides the same way so what do you say to somebody that you’re saying, no, that needs to look like a billboard? And they’ll say, but nobody in my company does this. So you’re asking them to take a huge risk. What do you say?
Michael: Well, the thing is, and that’s a lot of companies I work with have that problem. And if you consider the fact that since Microsoft bought PowerPoint, which is probably the most prevalent presentation software out there, you know, Apple’s version is called Keynote, since that day 30 years ago, it’s just gotten steadily worse. It’s just gone downhill on a regular basis. So in other words it’s taken a long time for it to get as bad as it is today. So reversing that trend is not going to be overnight. And it has to sort of gradually get the buy in of people in companies where they’re hide bound doing it the way that’s just actually a complete, communications-wise, waste of time. So if you show them how much more effective it is, how much more fun it is to work with slides that are designed the right way, then it’s a sort of process by exposing more and more people and then over time, getting companies to change the paradigm for them in terms of what decks are meant to look like.
Josh: That makes sense. And I’ve definitely seen the impact of that in doing it myself. To take 90% of the words off of a slide. That’s very interesting. So you mentioned your ad background and transitioning into a consulting practice. At what point did you decide you wanted to do this full-time and what’s the story behind that?
Michael: It was December 5th, 2010, and something just hit me and I realized it was time. Attitudinally, I’m geared to be a, what they call, subjective personality which is owning your own business. So I don’t know, something just snapped, switched one off and I decided, okay, I’m now ready to do this. And that was what, going into my sixth year now.
Josh: Yah, yah. When you decided to do it were you confident that you were going to succeed at that point?
Michael: Not at all. Are you kidding? No, not at all. And I think there’s something I can’t… people refer to it as a Mandela, that circular diagram. You start out ignorant, then you get arrogant, and then you get stupid, and then you make mistakes, and then you’re back to ignorant again. I think the process is being totally intimidated by the idea of leaving a corporate environment where the mothership takes care of everything, pretty much, and going out on your own. Because the other thing is when you do it, you’re the accountant, you’re the account person, you’re the presenter, you’re the owner, you’re the client-facing sales department, you’re everything. So I think you have to build up enough courage to get to the point where you hit the Malcolm Gladwell tipping point and you say, okay now I think I can do this. And then it becomes, you make at least a short term commitment and you see how it goes. And then the whole thing is about getting your first client.
Josh: So you mention making a short-term commitment to see how it goes. Did you treat it as an experiment?
Josh: Did you think, I’ll do this for some period of time and see what happens, or…?
Michael: I think that’s sort of inevitability, because if it doesn’t work, you got to rethink it. And also, you have to account for something that is unaccountable for, which is the learning curve, because you’ve never done it before. So I didn’t know quick books, I didn’t know a lot of stuff, even though I’d been in the business world my whole career. And you learn about taxes and taxation and how you do it and the fact that when you create a corporation versus an LLC. So you get an education that starts almost immediately, you start learning stuff.
Josh: That’s really interesting. Aside from the sort of administrative stuff or the nitty gritty of running a company, what was something that was unexpected for you about doing this on your own?
Michael: Let’s see. I would say how long it takes to get a client. Because in the work that I do it’s very, well, it’s expensive, number one, and it’s very intimate because I work with a lot of CEOs, so there is the ego management there. And you have to get over the hurdle of them thinking they know… actually, the good ones always want to get better. But word of mouth is a lot of how it works, and that’s actually a good thing because outside of that, in my category, in this particular one of speaking, there’s a lot of competition but there’s no one who does what I do the way I do it. But nevertheless, until those people are aware of the differentiation, they don’t know me. They don’t know what I offer and why it’s good and why it’s different and how it works. I’ve got clients - Ogilvy, I’ve worked Ogilvy for 7 years. Overly, it’s been over a year to get my first two half-day pilot.
Josh: Wow, wow. And going into that kind of a situation, you probably know a lot of the people already, you’ve had that relationship with these people for a really long time, right?
Michael: Yah, yah. The CEO of Ogilvy & Mather New York, I have known since 1994.
Josh: And it still takes over a year to get in.
Michael: Yah, yah.
Josh: Wow, that’s incredible.
Michael: It’s because of the matrix and budgets and timing and all kinds of stuff like that.
Josh: You think there’s a lesson there for people who are trying to work with big companies generally, about getting clients and what that process looks like?
Michael: I would say the lesson is patience and diligence. And keeping in mind that if you get a client like a big global client, Ogilvy is a global business, they have offices all over the world. Because I also have my book which just got published. So often with my clients, I want the book to be hand in hand with me, in other words, making it a textbook so clients buy 5,000 copies each. And I would say, the patience is warranted or justified if you keep in mind the fact that once you’re in the door, and the relationship goes well, you continue collaboratively to expand your footprint within the company.
Josh: That’s great. That’s great. And the patience thing and just working, having worked in big companies and seeing the pace at which things move versus the pace at which things move at a start-up and understanding from the start-up’s perspective that things will feel like they’re taking literally forever, and it’s just because that’s how long it takes sometimes. In large companies, there’s a lot of things that need to happen to work with someone new. You mentioned the book, Just Add Water. Tell me about how you decided to write the book and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Michael: The book came about after I was doing this for 8 years. I realized that, I’m always aware that how bad the state of affairs is in terms of presenting. The statistic is that 30 million presentations take place every day and 95% of them are terrible. So I realized that I wasn’t going to that make much of a dent in the universe by just doing 7 people a day. So I decided if I bottled the day program, which is phenomenally successful, has been since day one, and again, like I said earlier, I’m always, always calibrating a 185 slide teaching deck, to remove what I refer to as any cognitive friction so that it just gets better and better and better and more and more and more immediate, so no one, no major concept is lost on anyone and is absorbed the most immediately as possible. So I just decided that if I just bottled the day program into a book, everyone could benefit from it. So that’s why I did it. And it’s 120 pages. It’s incredibly visual. It’s not like anything in the category. It’s more like a children’s book for adults. And it’s the distillation of the day program, meaning there’s nothing hypothetical or theoretical about it. It’s literally a distillation of something that works incredibly well.
Josh: And it is beautiful. You mentioned that it’s visual. I think that’s an understatement. It’s a really, really pretty book that I think helps when you’re talking about telling stories visually and telling them in a way that sticks with people. That’s something that has stuck with me. And the book is on my desk in my office and I refer to it a lot. I think it accomplished what you’re looking for there. It is really nicely done.
Michael: Thank you.
Josh: So you… let’s see, you mentioned branding a little bit. You’re working with companies, with start-ups, to do branding. Are you working with individuals to do, I guess, I don’t even like saying personal branding, that sort of stuff as well?
Michael: Personal branding. Yah, yah, yah. Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of both. I’ve done a
lot of both. And the last two, the two start-ups I’ve worked with most recently, I’m an equity owner in both of them. And that was a branding process from scratch. So name of the company, the website design, the structure of the website, how anything related to the outside world is expressed. Both of them have creative directors who produce stuff. One is a real estate start-up in New York and one is a software designer web designer start-up. So I’ve done it with them. I’ve had very senior people, Fortune 50 companies, in what, for lack of a better word, or words, it’s been all about personal branding, which is like being victimized or in charge of your own, how you’re perceived. So I’ve done both. Love it. Love doing it.
Josh: Yah, yah. And we met through your work with start-ups. Why specifically do you work with start-ups?
Michael: I would say that for me it’s a really funny combination because in both cases, they’re under 30, all of them, and they can do what they do brilliantly. They can’t possibly do what I do for them and are so grateful, completely, totally grateful. Because they just don’t… it’s not their wheelhouse at all. So it’s this funny combination of under-30-year-olds and myself, who’s over 30, and have had a career’s worth of experience, and it’s this amazing symbiosis that takes place. It’s a really great combination. I think it’s not unlike situations where founders of start-ups end up being ejected from the company because they’re just so inexperienced. In this scenario, they all stay, but I get to come in to do what I do for them which they can’t do themselves. So it’s a combination that works so well.
Josh: That’s really, really cool.
Michael: Yah. And also it’s fun.
Josh: Yah, absolutely, absolutely. It’s great that you can do that. And I’m sure it’s definitely appreciated in the way that you said, that you’re bringing something to the table that they just couldn’t have possibly done on their own. Nice to be able to bring that. Let’s see. Anything else you want to cover while we’re together? Anything else you want to…
Michael: Remind me, Josh. The audience is...?
Josh: The audience here? Yah, the audience is people who work for early to mid-stage growing companies, who want to learn things that can help them be better at what they do as they grow their companies.
Michael: Okay, so these people are contemplating doing something on their own, or are doing something on their own, start-ups, or…?
Josh: Well, I think that people who work in companies that look like mine. I use Canary kind of as an easy example because it is sort of in the wheelhouse of the type of company I’m talking about. But a lot of people who work for companies like that are sometimes doing things on their own. They have contemplated doing things on their own, perhaps they’ve done it in the past. But even working within the start-up environment, I think there’s a lot of independence, a sort of different, much more entrepreneurial way that you approach your work than sort of most – over-generalizing I’m sure – but most large company types of roles. So it’s necessarily that people are off starting their own businesses tomorrow. But these are people who have an entrepreneurial way of working and work in those types of environments.
Michael: Okay. I would just say that anyone who’s contemplating doing it has to be aware that it’s thrilling and terrifying at the same time, that you’re going to learn a lot more than you already know, for sure, but in its own way, it’s the ultimate form of security because you’re being hired and paid for talent that no one can take away from you. So if you’ve found the core that is uniquely yours in terms of where your talents lie, no one can ever take that away from you. And if you connect with clients who appreciate what they’re hiring you and paying you, there’s relieve on their part that they’ve found someone who does what they need to have done, so they’re not going to let you go. So that’s its own form of security which at face value look risky, but in reality, isn’t.
Josh: Yah, that makes sense, that makes sense. Awesome. Michael, thanks for joining us. People can find you at Baldwin.com. Congratulations on owning that domain. Are you on Twitter or anywhere else people can find you?
Michael: Yah. Be Better. Be_better_
Josh: Got it. @be_better_ on Twitter. Thanks so much for giving the time.
Michael: Okay, Josh.
Josh: Have a great new year. Take care. Bye.
Michael: Okay, bye.