Do you wonder if how you’re describing your business causes potential customers and funders to lose interest in working with you? Today, Scott Brown, having started 8 companies over the last 25 years will help you clean up the way you describe your business. He is the Executive Director of UpRamp, that leads ventures & startup engagement for the global connectivity industry. As an active advisor, investor, and author — Scott shares his unique blend of startup grit, technology and (C)lean Messaging with startups around the world.
In this episode we discuss:
We hope this episode helps you learn how to talk about the business you’ve build and how it helps others.
Josh Fonger (00:24-01:13): Welcome to the Work the System podcast where we help entrepreneurs make more and work less using systems. And I’m your host, Josh Fonger. And today we have a special guest. We have Scott Brown. Scott is a former actor, turned entrepreneur, having started eight companies over the last 25 years from topical analgesics to bounced email. Today Scott is the executive director of upright and the VP of ventures and outreach for cable labs, an active advisor investor and author Scott shares his unique blend of stark grid technology and clean messaging with start-ups all around the world. Okay, Scott, so give us the backstory. How did you get into this line of work as becoming an author and executive director of up ramp and a VP of ventures of cable labs?
Scott Brown (01:14-02:59): Yeah. Thanks Josh. Great to be here. I love what you’re working on. You know, my story is kind of weird if I’m being totally honest with you. Long time ago when I was a kid, I was actually an actor. And I was lucky enough to go to drama school and travel the world and did a ton of Shakespeare acting, teaching, directing. And strangely enough, I was invited to do a show in beautiful Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And while I’m there, I get invited to a dinner party and I met a doctor who had just invented this new as you said, topical analgesic, right? There’s a pain relieving gel that was based on red peppers and you’ve just got FDA approval. And so he and I get talking and about two o’clock in the morning, we’re talking and drinking and talking and drinking. And he says, Scott, I think you can help me sell this. And I’m like, heck yeah. Well, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was an actor, right? Well, it turned out that I knew a guy who knew a guy and six months later we were able to sell the patent rights. And now this thing is in every Walgreens around the world. Total happenstance. But it changed my perspective. I went from a poor struggling actor to a, an entrepreneur almost overnight. And so here I am now 25 years later having started eight different companies, some as bootstrapped, right? Classic small business growth, some as venture backed. And now I run ventures and start-up engagement on behalf of the largest conductivity providers around the world. And today what I think we’re going to talk about clean messaging, which is the framework that helps people talk to actual human beings.
Josh Fonger (03:00): Okay. Let’s just jump right into it. So after all of your experiences, you kind of took those together and you wrote a book, right? The book is clean messaging.
Scott Brown : Yeah. Yeah. Clean messaging.
Josh Fonger : So tell me what is the method of, or how does that work?
Scott Brown : (03:15-5:04) Yeah, so here’s what I found is that we’ve built all these systems to help, especially technology start-up founders figure out what to build, right? There’s things like the lean start-up movement. Eric restarted that over 10 years ago now. The value proposition canvas, business modelling canvases, all of those things have been really great to help us figure out what to build and who to build it for. But they’ve actually done a disservice to founders. So if you think about the customer discovery process, and I’m sure you’ve talked about that on your show you have an idea, you get out of the office and go talk to real people and find out what they really want. Well, that process, when it’s inspiring and exciting for a founder, you learn that a customer needs it to be SAS based and it has to be AR and VR and Coobernetti. He’s in Mongo and they give you all of these buzzwords and things that you have to build. And so you go back to the office, you build all that stuff, and then you go talk to your very first customer and what do you do? You tell them everything you learned in customer discovery. Well, it’s SAS and it’s AR, VR, Mongo, Coobernetti’s and all of those buzzwords that were so important to that customer discovery process. But then that first customer, their eyes glaze over and they walk away and then you try again. So you now you throw more buzzwords. Well here’s more features, here’s more things that it could do, and you end up losing business. Not because you don’t have a great idea where that matches a real customer need, but because you just forgot that the person you’re talking to as an actual human being.
Josh Fonger (05:05-05:12): So as customer discovery is that whole process wrong then the way that it’s been done before and yours is a different way to do customer discovery.
Scott Brown : (05:13-6:17) : Customer discovery is important. You got to have that. You got to go out and talk to real people. You’ve got to learn all of that stuff. But once you get there, once you figure out the what you’re building and the who that you’re building for, then clean messaging shows up in your life. And that’s really the system that will help you turn all of the magic of your business into something you can communicate to other people. And so clean messaging is about taking a, what your audience really needs, who your listener is, right? The thing they most need in the world, combining it with something that you do, what’s the solution that you’re bringing to market? And then finding a way to express that. It’s almost like the poetry of your business. The simplest, easiest way to describe who you’re helping and what you do to help them. And then back it up with a story, some number analogies and a few little earworms and clean messaging is that system or framework we use to help people figure all of that stuff out.
Josh Fonger (06:18-06:33): So would this be useful to companies that are already established? Like if you run a dry, dry cleaner, would you need clean messaging or is it more for the company that no one’s ever heard of this software or this app before? And so they really need to figure out this clean messaging?
Scott Brown : (06:34-08:10): You know, I think it applies to them both. What we’ve seen is, you know, the real target here to start is technology entrepreneurs, right? That’s kind of the, the first focus. But beyond that, what we see is that the tools that we present and talk about in clean messaging apply to a small business owner, somebody running a dry cleaners who wants more sales, right? A person running a, carpentry business. There’s that classic example about people don’t buy drills, they buy holes, right? But I think that’s kinda wrong too. People don’t actually want holes. They want to hang a picture on their wall, right? And so clean messaging is about talking about the picture hanging not about the whole and not about the trail. It’s finding that human web, the thing that people most need. And then communicating that message. I’ve been talking about clean messaging now for a few months. I did a presentation down in the sunshine coast in Australia and just afterwards, this lovely guy came up to me and he said I’m not a startup guy, but I sit on the local council, the kind of state government or regional government and I’m going to start using this to talk about all the projects we’re doing for our community. That’s great. Right? It’s, it’s another highly technical or weird thing. They’re trying to pull stuff together and now he’s found a system that’s going to help him talk to actual people about the change he wants to see in the world.
Josh Fonger (08:11-08:34): I love it. Well, let’s do a little case study. This will be fun and practical for me. So let’s say I run a business called Work the system is this apathetic that, yeah. Okay. And let’s say that I want to help companies grow using systems, but as you mentioned, no one wants to buy systems. No one wants to buy procedures. That’s the last thing he wants to buy. So how would you walk me through a way to change that messaging?
Scott Brown : (08:35-08:40) Yeah. Well, let’s start. Who’s your audience? Who are you talking to? Who’s your?
Josh Fonger: (08:41-08:43) Small business owners that have hit a ceiling. So they’ve hit a ceiling and they know they can’t go any further. That’s who our buyers.
Scott Brown : (08:45- 09:04): Okay. So what’s the deep core human need that they have? Like if you boil that, hit the ceiling line down, what does that really mean to them? Is it they’re struggling. They’re running out of money, they’re afraid.
Josh Fonger: (09:05-09:25): Yeah. It could be all of those things, but basically they, they can’t reach their potential and they feel like failures, like they are they’re slaves, their business and they’re stuck. And so they, they need a solution. They just don’t know where the solution and they don’t want to buy procedures, that’s for sure.
Scott Brown : (09:26-09:35): Yeah. So that’s really interesting. And then tell me about work the system. What do you actually do? What’s the thing you do that solves that?
Josh Fonger: (09:36-10:03): Well, we take them through that transition point. So basically we will change their mindset, their strategy, the principles, their procedures, their team grow, the team so that they can actually get to that next level. And so we build the assets so that they can actually leapfrog beyond that glass ceiling. But yeah, that’s what we, that’s what we do. And so how would I deliver that in some clean messaging? What would I say? Help entrepreneurs get freedom? Or how do I turn that into a poem?
Scott Brown : (10:04-11:95): Yeah, that’s great. So Those are the two first pieces. Ah, so the key human thing about your listener, the second is the simple explanation of what it is you do. And you did the classic thing that most entrepreneurs do, they, they tell me what their business is and they use all these fancy words, right? Glass ceilings and leapfrogs and you know, there’s systems and strategies and procedures, right? All of that stuff is very interesting to you, but really doesn’t mean much to me. And so now we’re going to boil that down and we’ll start with the listener. So you said something that your audience may feel like they’re a slave to their business. Yup. Well, that’s pretty interesting and that’s evocative, isn’t it? A slave to the business. So let’s start with that. And then the other thing you said was leapfrog the glass ceiling. That’s pretty cool, right? I’m sure that, I mean, does that evoke something? Right.
Josh Fonger: (11:06-11:17): I never thought about that word picture, but he’s there breakthrough the plastic glass ceiling or leapfrog over the competition. I think I took two analogies and combined them. But
Scott Brown : (11:18-12:53): So what I would do to help find that clean messages. Let’s mash those two things together. So let’s say we help people who feel like they’re a slave to their own business, leapfrog their competition by X or with X , and that X is something very with, or by working the system, right? So, we help people just like you who feel they are a slave to their business. Leapfrog their competition by working the system. Yeah. And the way we know that something is an actual clean message is that it fits what I call the Sabre rule. It’s simple. It’s audience focused. It’s bite sized. You’re worthy. Meaning it sounds good and repeatable. Does somebody want to say it for you? And when you’ve got a really great clean message that is so clean and simple and, and fun to say that when you introduce yourself at a dinner party, other people will go, Oh yeah, that’s right. They, they feel it. Right? They feel the problem. A slave to the business. Oh yes. I feel that. I want to talk more about that. They get it and then they will introduce you to other people as the guy who helps you leapfrog your competition by working the system or working the systems.
Josh Fonger: (12:54-13:31): Sure. No, I love it. I’ve been thinking, taking notes down. I’m going to do a networking event next week, so this will be, give it a shot. That’s why I asked you, I was asking you, I been talking to the pro. Might as well get some free advice here. Well, very cool. So basically anyone can do that. It’s only give a formula for it. And you said it’s a simple audience of in bite size. What the one that stuck out to me was ear worthy now, so, you know, so for someone who is, so a lot of my clients are, have traditional companies and I like their car mechanic or, or whatever. So how do they, you know, writing might not be their strong suit. How did it make something that you’re worthy?
Scott Brown : (13:32-14:11): Yeah, it’s a tricky one. And, and kind of subjective isn’t it? It’s kinda just sound good and in many ways it’s got to sound good to you, but other people have to feel like it sounds good as well, and you just gotta test it, try it out. You know, leapfrogging the competition is fun to say. Slave to the business. It’s easy to remember and feels good to say it. You know, if you said we help you out maneuverer your local competitors, that’s just tough to say and doesn’t sound great, but leapfrog the competition feels better.
Josh Fonger: (14:12-14:24): Yeah, no, that’s, that’s interesting. And I think that’s a lot of people I know are stuck with this and they love talking about what their business does, but they don’t have a story to make it a scale.
Scott Brown : (14:25-15:44): Oh yeah. There is a company here I’m out in beautiful Boulder, Colorado and there’s an amazing company here in town that makes cookies and they’re really great. But when you talk to one of their founders, the first time I talked to him I said, Hey, what do you do? And he gave me the recipe for how to build his business, right? Well, you know, we take this kind of sweet dough and we slice it up and we bake it. And then we sell that to consumers. Like, come on, really? I mean, that’s, and when you talk to just about any technical founder and you ask them what they do, they will tell you exactly how to replicate their business. Now you talk to a marketing based or a sales-based founder, and you say, what do we do? And they will tell you all about themselves. Oh, well, I founded a business that does this, this, here’s all the features of the thing that I’ve built. And again, very true, but it’s all about them and nothing about the people that are helping in the world. And that’s the two kind of ends of the spectrum for clean messaging. We want to find a way to get rid of that spectrum altogether and start talking about other people and then how you help them with the solution that you have.
Josh Fonger: (15:45-16:11): Now what about mediums? Because the last piece of your saber rule, this repeatable, I think this is important because oftentimes, and you’ve mentioned this, oftentimes the people you’re talking to are not actually your customers, but it’s someone that they’re going to talk to on your behalf yes. Or the behalf of the behalf of the behalf. And so how do you make what you do repeatable? Or is that just a result of getting the first four letters of Saber? Correct.
Scott Brown : (16:12=17:15): Yeah. It might be the result, but at the same time, it’s something to really try to remember and work on because a great clean message is going to help create that viral coefficient, right. Where other people start talking about it. And even in, in our conversation, oftentimes small business owners and start-up founders, they think when they’re talking to the media or a podcast or the press, they think they’re talking to that reporter, but they’re not. Josh, you’re lovely. But I’m talking to all of you out there, right. My job is to talk to you about how you can change your business. Josh is prey and you know, I’ll help Josh, but let’s help everybody else too. And so as a start-up founder or as a small business owner, when you’re out there talking, you got to think about how your message is going to propagate long-term through the community and the way you do that is by being remembered. So that’s kind of the key, the key in all of this.
Josh Fonger: (17:16-17:35): So I’m going to push you a little harder on this one. So being remembered, how do you, is it about doing something that is remarkable as Seth Godin would say or, or what, what makes you, or is it or is it the medium that you share it in? So like if I shared something on Facebook, it’s easier to share than if I told someone face to face. They might not be able to share it as easy.
Scott Brown : (17:34-19:00): So there’s some science here. The London school of business did a study a number of years ago. They took a thousand students, grad students put them in a row and they showed them a bunch of statistics numbers and said, here’s a bunch of numbers. About a bunch of different topics, and then ask them to recall those afterwards. They could remember about 5% of those stats when they put the number on top of a picture. So let’s say I’m a do an example. There are 7.2 billion acorns in the world. Okay? Maybe 5% of people remember that if I put 7.2 billion on top of the picture of an acorn and say 7.2 billion acorns, 25% of people remembered it. But if I wrapped that stat, a 7.2 billion in a very simple story, just a, an analogy, 65% of people remembered it. And so if you think about that, instead of saying there are 7.2 billion acorns, I could say you know, there are more acorns in the world than people. Well, okay, now I’m going to remember that. And so tomorrow, Josh, if I asked you how many acorns there were in the world, you’d say, I don’t really know the number, but there are more than there are people. And you will remember that.
Josh Fonger: (19:01-19:15): No, definitely. And that’s that’s great. So there it’s not just, Well, what I’m thinking, what I’m getting at is you can’t just wing it. You can’t just wake this kind of thing and hope that you’re going to nail it because this actually takes some thought and some iteration.
Scott Brown : (19:16-19:45): Yeah, exactly. It’s, you know, build the, the clean message, use the framework that we lay out in the book and then practice it, tried a few times. Hone the message just like you’re working on your business. You need to work on your messaging because you know, it’s great to spend all of your time writing amazing, beautiful code. But what if you invested just a fraction of that time to make your messaging as clean as that coat.
Josh Fonger: (19:46-20:04): Right. I think this is key stuff for whether you’re involved marketing or smaller company when you’re doing the marketing yourself as an owner, this is the work of the business. Yeah. So usually the owner spends their time, you know, cutting the, or fixing cars or you know, building their website, but they don’t actually spend this kind of work, which is essential for it to actually scale.
Scott Brown : (20:05-20:28): That’s right. That’s right. Cause you want to build that community and you want to be remembered later on. If you’re pitching a venture capitalist, they will talk to a hundred start-ups this week and your job is not to amaze them with your stats and your numbers and the scale of your business. Your job is to be remembered at the partner meeting next Monday, then you will win.
Josh Fonger: (20:29-20:46): Let’s, let’s change gears cause this, this is kinda your, your background. And most people don’t get to have this kind of background. So I’m starting companies, you know, bootstrapped and venture capital back. Any pros and cons based on whether they’re getting investors, not getting investors. How do you make that choice?
Scott Brown : (20:47-22:09): Yeah, they both have their benefits And drawbacks. I would say it really depends on the type of business and the audience you’re serving and who you’re selling to. Okay. I’ve been lucky to do it both ways. I think that as a venture backed founder, I was able to scale before I had revenue so I could build faster. That is sometimes really great. But I’ll tell you my biggest failure as an entrepreneur came what I scaled way too fast ahead of revenue. I even did a Superbowl ad back in 1999 before I even made a single dollar in revenue. I spent two and a half million bucks on a Superbowl. So, you know, there’s, there are lessons to be learned here. What was the I don’t know if you can share it out. What was the what was the ad about? The ad was really great. We started this business that paid people for sending email. We found a way to insert advertising in the email that people would send to each other. So personal, one-to-one pretty clever, kinda like Google AdWords before there was a Google ad words, so a great idea. But now this Superbowl ad, if you go Google it, it is the 21st worst Superbowl ad in history. So I’m on a list. Thank you very much.
Josh Fonger: (22:10-22:31) Famous or infamous. Well, so I’m also, I like quick question, I want to ask you, since you’ve been involved in so many ideas, start-ups, is there anything you learn in terms of what makes an idea good versus what makes an idea bad where you can say, Oh, you know what, I know that’s not going to work. Do you have any kind of filters that you use to kind of gauge that?
Scott Brown : (22:32-22:36) : I used to, you know when you’re first starting out you don’t know anything and so you have to do all the work to figure something out. And then when you learn just enough, you start to think you know things. Right. And so a few years ago I thought I knew stuff and I thought I could apply a simple set of rules to something and I would get my answer. And now that I’ve seen a bit more and a few more scars and a few more gray hairs, I think I’ve figured out now that I don’t know anything. And so my job is to stop talking and listen and try to deeply understand the problem that an entrepreneurs trying to solve and then see if I can help. Now, there are certainly patterns and there are things that I’ve seen over my career that I would warn people away from that are really difficult things to solve. But I think I’m wise enough now to know that I don’t know enough to say,
Josh Fonger: (23:38-23:56): Well, that’s good advice. Well, it means you’ve lived long enough to know that. That is interesting. So I’ve worked at a running low on time, so I want to give you a few last minute questions so you can share things that you have on your, on your mind. First question being, what’s one thing that I didn’t ask you about but you wish I would have that you really think the audience needs to hear?
Scott Brown : (23:57-25:01) : And I think the biggest takeaway of clean messaging right now is as a founder, as a business owner, working on your business and building those systems, that’s really hard. That is hard stuff. And bless you for doing it right. You gotta you gotta find those ways, build those systems, scale the business, do that work at the same time. Remember that when you go out to the world, nobody actually cares. Nobody cares how hard you work to build those systems. They care what it is you do that will help them. Humans by definition are selfish and we don’t really care that somebody is built the next best widget. We want to know how that widget is going to help us. And if you know that going in, then you can frame your story and you can talk about your business that focuses on the listener instead of on you. [inaudible]
Josh Fonger: (25:02-25:14) Perfect. Yup. Couldn’t agree more. I have a lot of clients where they want to build a system and say, how will you start? Maybe sell it a few times, make some sales. Then the market will tell you what systems to build. Go to start building your closet. You could be building the wrong thing.
Scott Brown : (25:15-25:47) : That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. And you could spend too much time focusing on the internal side, right? Oh, I’m going to build the most amazing business that’s never sold anything.
Or where you can focus too much on the outside stuff and now the business is flying off the rails. You don’t have any kind of structures or systems in place and there’s gotta be the right balance. But I think if we always remember that you’ve built a business to serve somebody else and to talk about their needs first, that is the magic.
Josh Fonger: (25:48-25:51) : All right? So it’s gotta work and people find you, if they want more information, they want to find a book, where should they go?
Scott Brown : (25:52- 26:10) : Yeah, you can find clean messaging, the book on amazon.com obviously you can go to Scott brown.co/wts we’ve built a little landing page just for you guys to be able to go and learn a little bit more, download the framework, see how it applies to your business.
Josh Fonger: (26:11-26:24) Very good. All right. It’s got, well I’ll actually be going there cause this is really gonna be helpful for me and my team. I’ve got a bunch of coaches. I’m training and I know I want them to know this messaging. That was the question to me this morning actually. So this is pool.
Scott Brown : (26:25-26:29) : Well yeah, let me know how that works and you know, drop me a line. I’m happy to help.
Josh Fonger: (26:30- 27:18) : Yeah, definitely. So everyone, make sure to check out. Scott, go to go to the page you just mentioned there. It’ll be in the show notes and he’ll be able help you out with that download and more information about your messaging and stay tuned. Next week we’ll be sharing another podcast episode with an expert like Scott or one of my previous clients or one of my coaches to share how they are making companies more money and helping the entrepreneurs work less. Also, you want a copy of that book right there. You can go to work the system.com and download it for free, the Sam carpenter’s bestselling book or you can get a free copy mailed to you. Either leave us a review at a wherever you’re listening or watching this. Leave us a review, send a picture of that review to info at work, the system.com and once a week we’ll be mailing out a copy to one of the winners a week, and so feel free to do that again, the email address, there’ll be info at work, the system.com otherwise, we’ll see y’all next week.
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