The popular image of an entrepreneur is going solo… being independent. But my guest this week, copywriter and joint venture expert Bob Serling, advocates a different approach that allows you to leverage the expertise and contacts of others. You can use his strategies if you’re selling a product or seeking clients for your professional services… even trying to find work in a new career path.
Your business will move forward exponentially, says Bob, when you leave behind a winner-take-all attitude and instead help others be successful first.
That’s just one of the counterintuitive concepts Bob shares. And they’re proven to work - it’s how he created a best-selling toy with the world’s top skateboarder, despite starting with zero experience in the industry.
Tune in to discover…
- The secret ingredient to a successful business most entrepreneurs don’t understand
- Where to find the game-changers for your business - they’re closer than you think
- Why you should avoid traditional networking… and what to do instead
- The one thing you must do before creating a product or trying to sell it
- How to quickly make yourself credible to those who can help you the most
Listen now to Steve Gordon and Bob Serling…
Bob Serling | Next Level Networking that Leads to Breakthrough Business Partnerships
In this episode, we're talking with Bob Serling. Bob is a 30-year marketing veteran. He's the Founder of Profit Alchemy, Inc. and he's got an innovative take on marketing that’s helped hundreds of clients get exceptional results from their marketing. I'm one of them. I got one of Bob’s programs years ago. It was the first thing I ever learned on copywriting. If you read my emails, you can blame him. Bob's been the monthly marketing column for Success Magazine. He invented a skateboard toy featuring Tony Hawk and Tony's branding. He has done amazing and interesting things. What he's probably best known for is revolutionizing the process of structuring joint ventures by changing the focus from this reciprocal agreement strategy that's been out there, flipped it and created a one-sided emphasis. Bob, welcome to The Unstoppable CEO.
Steve, thanks a lot for a wonderful introduction.
You’ve done many different things and you have built multiple businesses. I'd love for you to take a minute and take us beyond the bio and give everybody a little bit of context for what got you to this point in your career.
I get bored easily. I love inventing things. Whether that's a physical product or a new way to do joint ventures, a new way to structure marketing, I was involved. I had a brilliant partner who was the head of the Graduate School of Education at UCLA and it's amazing that I was his partner because I barely got out of high school, I barely graduated. It was so interesting because it was a totally different way of learning. I'm always interested in unique approaches to things and that's served me well. That ties into licensing and joint ventures where you can collaborate with others to get a lot of the work done. I love creating the ideas, but then I like to hand them off to somebody else. I'm not the person who does well working on the same project over and over for years. Sometimes that's served me well and sometimes it's worked against me, but it's important to recognize what your personality is in the way you work best and in the way you enjoy working best and be able to build that in to your business and your lifestyle.
That's hugely important. Honestly, most people go around and they don't recognize that in themselves. They try and fit themselves into a model that somebody else has for them. Recognizing that is a huge strength.
The education system does the best it can, but it works best with standardized testing and putting people into certain buckets. People grow up thinking, “I fit in this bucket but I don't feel very good in this bucket. I'm not comfortable in this bucket.” Then when you go against it, especially in the school system, you're punished for it as I well know, hardly getting out of high school. I was interested in a lot of different things and my teachers didn't like that at all. Growing up in Detroit, I then became very interested in the jazz and blues clubs and spent more time there than I did in the classroom in high school. That's why I barely got out. As long as you’re trying to stay in a predefined bucket, I’ve found that it's very difficult to get a lot of juice out of what you're doing.
That's absolutely true. Over the years, as you've built the different businesses that you've been involved with, as you've developed these ideas and worked with folks to pass them off, I'm sure that didn't all go perfectly smoothly. It never does.
Of course, it did. It was an escalator to the top.
Tell us the Facebook version, like if you were going to create a post on Facebook. There's the perfect version and then we can get into reality. What are some of the ways that you've found that when things didn't go right, what did you do? How did you overcome that?
There's that old saying, I guess Einstein came up with it, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you'll just get the same results. That's absolutely true, but the corollary to that is what I touched on before. If you keep following the same rules and the same directions you're told to, people go where everybody else goes. I've always challenged that and that helped me a lot. The earliest example of that was I was in my early twenties probably and I was working as a project manager for big software projects for big companies like Honda Motors and Princess Cruises. I hated every minute of it. I didn't enjoy it except that it paid well.
I was always looking around for things then I came across this book by Melvin Powers called How To Get Rich In Mail Order. I'm reading it and it's interesting, but it's also sleazy. Within that book, he recommended if you're going to get rich in mail order, you have to be able to write great ads. The book I recommend is How To Write A Good Advertisement by Victor Schwab. I bought that book and I read it and it was fantastic. It was very ethical and it was about connecting with your audience in a very authentic way and respecting your audience, the opposite of How to Get Rich in Mail Order. I decided, “To heck with mail order, I want to be a copywriter.”
How To Get Rich In Mail Order
A friend of mine who lived across the street from me was an executive at a big ad agency. I went over and I was talking to him. I said, “I want to be a copywriter. Can you introduce me around? Can I get some work from your agencies?” He said, “You're never going to be a copywriter because you don't have a book.” “What's a book?” He said, “It's a book of all the examples you've done for big accounts. You have to have a book for somebody to consider you.” I said, “Maybe so, but I'm going to try it on my own.” My background was in technology and with banks and auto companies. I understood technology and I understood finance. The internet wasn't that new at the time, it has been around maybe five years. People weren't conversing in it and technology was confusing to a lot of people.
I ran a little two-page classified ad in a publication called Adweek, which is where advertising copywriters put out their plaque, hung a shingle, and basically said something like, “Are you sick of copywriters who don't know the difference between a potato chip and a microchip? If so, I can help.” It generated a lot of interest, but my friend was right. Most people wouldn't hire me because I didn't have any prior experience. I always told them, “I’ll work for 20% of the going rate or whatever to get my foot in the door and I will work my butt off for you.” I’ve got a company to take me up on it and they paid me $75 to write an ad that would normally go for about $1500 at the time. The guy was just nasty. He was taking advantage of me, but I didn't care because it was for a big national client.
I wrote the ad, it went well, and they then came back to me and said, “That was so good. We're going to pay you $250 for the next ad,” which is again a quarter the percent, but this one was for a subsidiary of Bank of America, a big national client and I didn't care. I took the $250, I wrote the ad, and now I had a book. It was a very thin book, but it was two successful ads. What I'm getting at is I’ve never just followed the black and white roadmap, “This is how you do it. You have to have a book or you've got to create a book.” What I realized, I just looked at my background and I thought, “What advantage do I have that agencies or businesses need?” That is that I understood technology and finance, whereas most copywriters didn't.
I use that as a lever to get in and I have always done things that way. The main thing I discovered is when you're up against the big problem, there's almost always a doorway into the solution. You just have to look for it and you have to find it. A lot of times it helps to talk to other people to find that. The other thing that's helped me immensely over the years is collaboration. On every big project that I’ve ever been successful at, I collaborated with somebody. The skateboard toy that had Tony Hawk's logo than the logos of six other big skateboard brands on it, I had never invented a toy in my life. I wasn't known in the toy industry, I wasn't known in the skateboard industry, but I had a marketing background.
I thought, “How do I get my invention licensed?” Only 2% of all products that are patented ever make it to market because the inventors focused on the wrong things. They focused on patents and protecting their idea because they're terrified that somebody will steal their horrible idea. I realized that if I could prove that there's a market of people wanting to buy the product beforehand and then went to a toy company, we could sell it. Long story short, I made a cheap crappy prototype that I made by cutting up parts of other toys with adrenaline, glued them together. It cost me around $31. I took them around the skateboard shops and toy stores and said, “If I can get a company to license this, would you buy it?” We got eight out of ten stores that said, “We would.”
I also wanted to have a contact in the skateboard industry. I live in San Diego which is a hotbed of skateboarding. I sent out an email to all my friends, neighbors, and business contacts in San Diego only and I said, “Do you know anybody who works professionally in the skateboard industry?” Twenty minutes later, one of my neighbors sent me an email and said, “My son goes to school with the son of Tony Hawk's business partner. Would you like to meet him?” Of course I would. He introduced me and we had lunch. I showed him the toy. He loved the idea and we've partnered on it and I gave him a third. His name is well-known in the industry. He was also a commentator for the X Games with ESPN. I did the commentary with Tony and he got right into a company. Twenty minutes later we got in based on his reputation and his name in the industry. I would have had a very difficult time getting in on my own, so collaboration is really important. He's a great guy too.
The strength of the idea and when I presented them with the names of the companies who wanted to buy the product, it is easy for them to verify it. In fact, I don't know if they even ever did verify it because I'd be an idiot to give them these names and have even one of them be false. We walked out of that meeting 20, 30 minutes later with a letter of intent. In a week we had the licensing agreement done. Not blindly following the rules and collaboration has been the two things that have worked best for me. Whenever I'm in a spot and I feel stuck or there's something new and I want to not move forward linearly but be able to leap over it, and collaboration has been to me the greatest tool for making exponential advances rather than just step by step.
That's an overlooked leverage point for most business owners. As we're talking with some of our clients, they'll say, “I don't have this, I don't have that.” The answer is usually not more than an email or a few phone calls away, because there's somebody who does have it or has access to it you got a relationship with, and you probably don't know that they have it. It's a matter of getting out there and having those conversations with people.
It's amazing. I've always used that same approach of, “I don't have this skill or I don't have this access path, who do I know?” Then I email those people and it's absolutely amazing some of the results that come up. When I took a break for a couple years and started a software company with a couple partners, and it was a testing and assessment software for the online training industry, we send out an email to everybody we knew, “Who do you know works in the training department for a Fortune 500 company?” It turned out that our webmaster’s secretary saw it and she had a connection with the Secretary of Education and we got an introduction there. Somebody else introduced us to the Head of Online Training at Deloitte Consulting. They loved what we were doing and they've became our champion and introduced us all over the place, to Ford Motors, IBM, and all these companies. We were this little three-person shop that nobody had ever heard of, but we had a great model that demonstrated what the software did. It was all through collaboration. That's always been the avenue I’ve used to move forward exponentially instead of step by step.
One of the things that I like going back to is the example that you gave with the skateboarding toy. Not only did you go and used collaboration to find the right person to open that up, but it sounds like you also realize that if you let them in, let that key contact in so that they profited from this as well, now you've got them on your side and they're winning and you're winning. Instead of you trying to hoard the whole thing and maybe settling for a small pie, you went and shared some of that and expanded it out.
The company that we licensed it to is doing about $100 million a year in business, which is actually small in the toy industry, but it's still sizable and it's a good-sized company. I could have had 100% of a deal with a company that's new, maybe making $5 million a year. I’ve got two-thirds of the royalties from $100-million company and I met a great guy. I’ve done other projects with him over the years too. I got access into both the skateboard industry and the toy industry that I would've just taken the years to do on my own. I would have made less money and it would’ve taken a lot more time. I believe in being very generous and sharing the portions as well.
That's a little bit of an unusual approach. A lot of business owners will look at that and not only will they want to protect their intellectual property, but they'll also want to hold on tight to the profits and the proceeds. Both of those can be dangerous. Many ideas get trapped because they're a secret. It's like, “I got this great idea. I'm not going to tell anybody.” What's the point of that?
That's what happens. That's why only 2% of patented inventions ever go to market because they were done in a vacuum. The person was so protective of it that they wouldn't tell anybody. They never got any accurate feedback as to whether or not the idea is good or not. “I’ve invented shoes with a built-in mouse trap so I can walk around the garage and catch mice if there are mice in my garage.” Okay, great. You’ve paid $10,000 to patent that. You've paid another $15,000 to $20,000 to make this fully functional prototype that nobody cares about because nobody's going to buy it. It's pretty amazing but the patent attorneys make a lot of money.
They always do. That's what I love about all of our attorney clients, they get it both ways. Brilliant stuff. I appreciate the insights that you shared. The critical role of collaboration is one that's overlooked. For most businesses, no matter what problem that you come across, you're probably no more than an email or a phone call away from solving it. I know you've spent an awful lot of time working on perfecting the model of joint ventures. What have you found is the key to making those relationships work?
The key goes back to what we touched on, which to me is collaboration because the big problem with the conventional way that people are taught to do joint ventures, as they said, was to put together a great pitch for your product and send it out to the ten top people in your industry and ask them to sell your product and show them why it's great. You get zero response because, number one, those companies are getting 100 emails like that a month, sometimes 100 a week. They have no time to read them. They have no time to do due diligence to find out if your product is what it claims it is and your reputation is as good as you claim it is. Secondly, even if they did look at it, you're saying, “I’ll sell your product to my list too.” “How big is your list?” “It's 2,000 people.” The big company you approach, there's 180,000. There's that massive disparity. What is the attraction to them? There isn't. Then there's always the issue of, “If I don't know you, how do I know I'm going to get paid?” Those three issues create so much friction that according to Entrepreneur magazine, 70% of all joint ventures fail. That doesn't take into account the number that never get off the ground because partners are approached that way. It's closer to 90%, 95% fail.
A lot of the reason for it is because of the so-called experts who teach companies how to set up joint ventures because that's the thing they tell them, “Just write a great pitch, keep it short and tight, and send it out and people will flock to you.” It doesn't happen that way. I've talked to a lot of different experts and I said, “How many pitches do you do look into companies you don't know who want you to sell the products?” Most of them say zero and some say 1% to 2%. I started thinking about this and again I thought, “What's wrong with this logic? What's the fault here?” The fault is that most joint ventures and most strategic alliances get done because people know you. They either know you because you've worked with them or you've been referred to them. You don't have that relationship when you're approaching somebody with a joint venture. They don't know you. That is the main reason. What I created was what I called a flip joint venture, where when you approach a company, you start by offering to sell their product first and you never ask for a reciprocal.
I had to approach it and I'd say, “Steve, my name is Bob. You don't know me. I make blue jump ropes. I got a list, it's not big. It's maybe 2,000 people, but they like the jump ropes and you make that red and yellow double jump rope. I know people love it because you've got tens of thousands of customers and testimonials. Could I sell your red and yellow jump ropes to my list? I'd like to sell your stuff.” Basically you're saying, “I would like to sell your product. Would that be okay with you?” When you do that, you can get 99% buy in from partners because who's going to say, “No, I don't want free sales?” Now the credibility issue is gone. If you do that and then you repeat that sale maybe two months later and you're making money for this expert, now when you approach them, you have a basis of a relationship. First of all, you were being of service to them first without asking for anything else. Also, you're getting paid to build your relationship with them because you're making money selling their red and yellow jump rope to your blue jump rope customers. The most important thing is when you approach them, you have the foundation of a relationship.
Realistically, let's say you do this with ten companies that you'd like to joint venture with. What you do is, after a couple months, you say, “Steve, this is Bob again. I've sold your red and yellow jump ropes a couple of times and people love them. We've made some good money together. I’m thinking that your audience would like my blue jump rope just as much. Would you be willing to try selling it to your list?” Now it's a different relationship because you're going to go, “This guy made me some money. I'll take a look at this.” Realistically, if you do this with ten people, maybe only two or three will promote your product, but you're miles ahead of the zero, who wouldn't? The more people that promote it, the more you get known, the more they refer you to other partners. It builds that snowball effect that you always get. It's a different form of collaboration where you're going to them and say, “Instead of me saying to you, ‘Do this for me,’ what can I do for you? How can I collaborate like doing something for you that will make you money?” When you hear it, it sounds like a minor difference and it isn't that’s a huge a difference, but nobody does it that way. Nobody teaches people to do it that way. That's why 70% to 90% of joint ventures fall flat on their face.
I'm sitting here grinning because that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you describe that. Essentially, what you've described is exactly our approach to networking. We don't use it in the joint venture framework. Most of our clients are service businesses so doing that promotion sometimes doesn't work very well for a lot of reasons, including regulatory reasons. They're always looking for a way to network and create connections and build referral relationships. What we advocate, in fact I'm writing a book on this, is you go and you interview that person, much like what we're doing now. You share them with everybody that you know and promote them. What we found is that when you do that, it's amazing how easy it is to get them to want to turn around and help you in some tangible way. It’s funny how that works, right?
Yes. It's amazing. If you look at it, it doesn't matter whether you're generating leads, whether you're starting a business, whether you're looking for joint ventures, whether you want to place a product, whether you want to license your intellectual property to others, there's almost always a collaboration that will get you there three to ten times faster than doing it on your own.
It's such a brilliant approach. Thank you for sharing that. I know you're working on a project right now around email. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and what it’s trying to accomplish?
Once I launched my copywriting business, and this goes back 25 years ago, and I did it with that little ad and then people were referring me, I wanted more traction and I wanted traction with people who hired copywriters. I created a little interview series on how to write great copy and I sent out a little letter inviting five or ten good copywriters to be interviewed on how they write great copy. At first, I got very little interest and then one day my phone rang. I picked it up and it says, “Is this Bob Serling?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “This is Ted Nicholas. I'm calling you from Switzerland where I live in the summer. I got your letter and I loved it. I'd love to do the interview. Can we do it now?” I hooked up the equipment and we did it. It was an hour interview. It cost about $90. Ted said, “Call me back in ten minutes,” and I called him back. I paid the $90 but I was happy to. Then I sent an email to everybody who hadn't responded. I said, “I sent you this invitation, I haven't heard back from you. I just did an interview with Ted Nicholas and it's great if you want to hear it. I'll send it to you.” Then all of a sudden, within a few days, five or six more people said, “Yes, we'll do it too.” I ended up with Gary Halbert and a couple other people, a guy who was one of the best press release writers at the time. It was a nice series and I gave it away. I It attracted a lot of traffic and then a lot of clients.
I've always used those types of collaborations over the years. My latest is called 15-Minute Email Academy. What I’ve realized, and it didn't take any great breakthrough, but you see all these people doing webinars and Facebook ads and AdWords and different social media, and that's all great, but the object of all of it is to get people on your list so you can begin to create a relationship with them through your emails and then eventually sell them something. Email is still to me the most powerful tool for building a relationship and selling things once you get them on your list. Everybody wants to know how to write better email so I decided to do a series called Fifteen-Minute Email Academy where I would interview experts and we take one of their top performing emails. We'd number the blocks and I set up questions for each block and we bring it up on the screen. The email would be there and we'd go through it block by block, and they'd break down exactly how they wrote it. People could swipe the concepts and use them in their own topic. Fortunately, I was able to get a lot of great experts to agree to be interviewed and looking forward to doing an interview with you with your best performing emails.
I can't wait.
That's the new series. It's been live for a few weeks. The other thing about it is not only do you collaborate, you meet new people. I've been around marketing for a lot of years. I do know a lot of people, but there's a ton of people I don't know. One of the questions I always ask the people I interview at the other end of the interview when it's over and then we turned off the recorders is, “Who are the people whose emails you read the most, that you make sure you read when they land in your inbox?” They tell me. If I don't know those people, I can get an introduction through my network, so it's very collaborative. It works as a three-way collaboration. The expert gets exposure to my list and then through the various publicity mechanisms we use to promote it, I get to present great expertise to my subscribers and the subscribers get all this expertise without having to pay a penny it. Everybody benefits from it one way or another, plus I learn a lot from it.
It's an absolutely brilliant strategy. I'm writing an entire book about exactly how to do this called The Exponential Network Strategy, because at the end of every interaction you're always asking for who else. It just grows and grows. I used to spend a lot of my time out networking back in my first business. We were a local consulting firm. I go to chamber mixers and I'd go to the breakfasts and all of these different things. I spent lots of time away from my family unfortunately to go to these things. Looking back, I now call that the hamster wheel of death. What got me off of it is I knew a pretty successful sales guy and he'd been doing it for years and years, showing up at these things and networking and all that. It was just an incredibly bad use of time. What I love about the approach that you described is that it's very time efficient, but it's also effective. At the end of the day, you create something that's pretty unique in the marketplace.
Plus there are a couple other advantages. It doesn't come across in these interviews, but I'm pretty much of an introvert. A lot of the marketing experts and even business leaders I know are pretty introverted. I do lousy at networking events because I'm not great at the meet-and-greet. It doesn't work for me. Plus, when you do it this way, you get to select who you network with instead of going into a room and randomly hoping that there's somebody there that you can connect with. My experience was I would talk with five or six people once I got beyond my awkwardness, and most of them were envelope salespeople. It's like you said, it is not a practical use of time. When you do it the way we've been discussing, it is very time efficient. You learn a lot, you make some great friendships, and you get to select who you network with and who you don't.
What I have always found with it is it will give you access to people that you probably couldn't get access to otherwise. The real valuable connections are not the ones you're going to make at those networking events. The most valuable people that you can connect with generally aren't going to those. They've got other things to do. If you give them an opportunity to promote themselves and give them a platform for doing that and it doesn't have to be a big platform, you can get access to people. I've even seen some of our clients use it where they'll put a list of their prospects together. The companies they want to do business with, they'll put the CEOs on there and they'll go out and do something like this with those CEOs. Instead of trying to beat the door down and get through the gatekeeper and all that stuff, they skate right through and now they've got a friendship with this person.
It's the same thing when I work with clients or I teach courses on setting up joint ventures for your business. It makes a list of your top twenty candidates, the companies that you would most like to sell your products, and then send ten of them an invitation for you to sell their products with no reciprocal. It helps to have a list because if you don't know who you want to network with or who you want to joint venture with or who you want to collaborate with on creating a product, it's like the old saying, “If you don't have a roadmap, how are you going to get from California to Florida?” You don't just point the car and hope to get there. If you talk to clients, a lot of them don't have that list. They are just, “I'd like to do some joint ventures with you. I'm not sure, but you’d be good for my business.”
There's always that conversation that the person who wants to go have the other one sell thinks it's a perfect fit. So often, we forget that they're running a business over there and you're not factored into their plans at the moment. It doesn't matter how great things are, it's just not in the plan right now.
It almost never will be if you don't have some way of establishing a relationship with them. There was one other point I wanted to make. When you start that relationship by selling that company's product first, we're talking about joint ventures here, three things happen. First of all, you're getting paid, which is the best part. You're getting paid to build the relationship and you can take some time to do it. Secondly, what the part of people overlook with joint ventures is that you're also being a great service to your customers or your clients. I was talking to a company that I'm helping set some joint ventures up and they sell sales training for people who are new to sales. They don't want to be high pressure. They want to sell in an authentic way.
I said, “What is the first product or the first skill that most of them need once they take your training?” “They need time management and we don't offer that.” I said, “Let's go out, let’s do a search on ‘time management training’ so we get the fewest number of results.” We go to Google, it's 450,000 results returned. That is a problem for your customer or client. They don't know which of those 450,000 are good, which are a scam, which are terrible, which are the best, which are the easiest to use, but you're going to know some of that because you're teaching sales training. If you do your due diligence and find that for them, approach a company and say, “Do you mind if I sell your time management product to my clients who have just taken sales training?” and the time management comes and says, “That would be great,” you're doing a great service to your client or customer as well. You're helping them cut through this massive ball of confusion that's created by many different products being available these days that you go numb trying to figure out what's good and what isn't. It's a collaboration in a number of directions and it benefits everybody involved. A lot of people don't look at how much of quality joint venture benefits their customers and clients.
I completely agree. Bob, I know we've talked about a ton of things today. Where's the best place for people to go to find out more about what you're doing and connect with you?
The easiest thing to do is go to my website, 15MinuteEmail.com. You can see all those email interviews we talked about. They’re free, there's no opt in required. On the same page, there's a free eBook called The New Rules of Joint Ventures. You do have to opt in for that and it breaks down the entire process. We talked about step by step in much more detail. You get two things done. You can learn how to write better email and find out whether JVs are a great fit for your business on the same place.
Depending when you go there, you might see one of my emails go under the microscope with Bob and that should be a lot of fun.
Everybody, go check out 15MinuteEmail.com. Bob, thanks so much for being here. It’s great to connect with you. Thanks for being here and we'll talk real soon.
My pleasure, Steve. Thanks so much.