Episode 274 — Mike Janda and Tom Ross — The Business of Design


Episode 274 — Mike Janda and Tom Ross — The Business of Design

Michael Janda is an executive level creative leader with more than 20 years of experience in both in-house creative departments and agencies working with some of the greatest brands in the world.

In 2002, he founded the creative agency Riser, a nationally recognized agency creating high-profile work for clients including Disney, Google, ABC, Fox, Warner Bros., NBC, TV Guide and numerous other notable companies. In addition to his robust experience managing creative and marketing teams, Michael is the author of the book Burn Your Portfolio: Stuff They Don’t Teach You in Design School, but Should. Since its publication in 2013, Burn Your Portfolio has been one of the top selling books in the industry and has been published in English, Russian, Chinese Traditional and Chinese Simplified. His work and business has been featured by Print Magazine, HOW Magazine, Utah Business Magazine and BusinessQ Magazine, where he donned the cover of the December 2012 issue highlighting their article for Utah’s Coolest Entrepreneurs.

Tom Ross is the founder and CEO of Design Cuts in London, England. Tom and Mike started their Podcast Biz Buds, a value-packed weekly discussion during which they share their journeys from struggling freelancers to both running multi 7-figure businesses, and the lessons picked up along the way.

In this Podcast, Mike, Tom and Allan talk about working remotely, the most important set of skills for artists, successful branding, niching and how COVID-19 has affected the industry.

Mike Janda’s Website: http://michaeljanda.com

Books by Mike Janda: https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Janda/e/B00BU8EV2E%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

Mike Janda on Allan McKay’s Podcast: https://www.allanmckay.com/221/

Mike Janda on Instagram: @morejanda

BizBuds Podcast: https://perspective-podcast-fuel-for-your-mind-creative-grind.simplecast.com/episodes/bizbuds-tom-ross-mike-janda-on-creating-a-great-personal-brand-VfNq2ZgR

Tom Ross on Instagram: @tomrossmedia

Design Cuts Website: https://www.designcuts.com/about-us/



[03:17] Tom Ross and Mike Janda Introduce Themselves

[06:22] Mike and Tom Talk About BizBuds

[08:19] Working from Home in 2020

[20:54] Scarcity Mindset and How to Beat It

[26:16] The Importance of Soft Skills 

[45:56] How Niching Down Helps Land Clients

[56:33] How to Test Your Niche

[1:01:20] Building a Storybrand

[1:09:28] The R-Word (Relationships) 



Welcome to Episode 274! This is Allan McKay. I’m speaking with Tom Ross and Mike Janda. I’ve been really excited to put this Episode out.

I had Mike on my Podcast before (www.allanmckay.com/221). He gave so much value. Now, Mike and Tom have put out their own Podcast. I feel that we all share the same ideas. I remember reading Mike’s book Burn Your Portfolio and feeling how much we were similar. Tom and Mike are leaders in their industry and they bring a wealth of knowledge that transcends design. On top of that, this is such a value rich Episode, anyone of us would get a lot out of it. 

Let’s dive in! 



[1:18:22] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!



[03:42] Allan: I want to thank you for taking the time to chat. Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves? 

Mike: Tom, you go first!

Tom: My name is Tom Ross. I am a long time creative and entrepreneur. Currently, I’m the CEO at Design Cuts for the last 7 year. We’re one of the biggest design market places in the world. And on top of that, I just love helping creatives with marketing. So that’s the personal brand — the side hustle that I’m building around the day job. Recently, I teamed up with Mike and we’re working on the BizBuds Podcast. We get to geek out about all this creative marketing stuff week and week out.

Mike: You forgot to mention that because of that, this has been the most favorite year of your life.

[04:39] Allan: You can add that you’re the only person on the planet who’s actually said that. “I thought 2020 was going to be My Year!”

Mike: That’s right! I’ll introduce myself. My name is Mike Janda. My side hustle is my main hustle. It’s a great time in my life. 

Tom: That makes for a great t-shirt: “My side hustle is my main hustle.”

Mike: You’re right! It’s living the dream right now. I owned my agency and I sold it. It was a great run. But now, I get to focus on building content, helping and mentoring creatives which is my passion. I’ve written a couple of books: Burn Your Portfolio and The Psychology of Graphic Design Pricing. I share a ton of content on Instagram and I do courses too. I just launched a big freelancer course. I just love doing what I’m doing and I love having a global community. I love connecting with people all over the world, connecting and sharing. It’s just a joy for me. And like Tom said, it’s been a great year for us in the content standpoint. Starting the BizBud Podcast has been a blast. We love getting on Podcasts like this, with you.

Tom: I was just about to say, Allan, a huge thank you for having us on!

[06:22] Allan: Pft! Frigging English people and their manners. I’m excited! I’ve been up since 4:30 a.m. prepping for this. I was talking to my wife last night who is usually up working until 4:00 a.m. She was telling me Tom’s backstory. Just curious about the Podcast. What’s some of the stuff you, guys, talk about? 

Mike: The big difference between our Podcast and other Podcasts is that when Tom and I started it, we went with the mindset of we want this to be super actionable. It’s not just us bantering on the topic. [Instead], we’ll present a concept or multiple concepts, and then we give actionable strategies: 1, 2, 3, 4. The 10 takeaways that you can implement right now. It’s all about branding, business strategy, nitching, finding clients, pricing products. We did a couple of Episodes on growing your Instagram channel. We touch on anything that’s going to help creatives level up their business. 

Tom: Like Mike said, every Episode is supposed to be like a free course. We wanted to do something that people would pay for — but put it out for free. That’s the methodology.

[08:19] Allan: Yeah, for me that was my intent. The more I started listening to Podcasts, I wondered, “Am I doing this wrong?” because so many people hold back. It’s critical to frontload the value. When people get some success, now what? Rather than spending thousands of dollars and taking a risk. You have to focus on giving value upfront. So, with 2020 being your year, I’m so jealous! In a lot of ways, we are going through a major shift. I work in visual effects. Companies like Disney and Marvel have the tightest security. You can’t have cell phones connected to any other network. The minute COVID-19 happened, there was no hesitation to go work from home. My friends at Facebook are told they don’t have to come back if they don’t want to. You don’t need to be in NY to get design work. You can be anywhere with good internet connection. What are your thoughts on working from home?

Mike: This really applies to what happened in my life. I started my agency. My first clients were ABC, Sony and Warner Bros. Those were the ones that generated opportunities. But I moved to LA from Salt Lake City. We thought about where we wanted to raise our kids. I was a freelancer working from home, at the start of my agency life. I was nervous. This was 2002. I thought, “What am I doing moving away from my connections?” In 2002, we didn’t have Zoom or internet connection speeds. I dialed up. This trend of being able to work remotely has been going on for the last 20 years. The last 10 especially, it’s become more available. I think this whole COVID-19 lockdown is forcing businesses that hadn’t fully adopted this — to do so! I think what we are seeing now is that you can have a remote workforce. We were forced into it. Anyone who’s done it is realizing: productivity is still there, clients are still buying from us.

Tom: It’s a really interesting question because we’re living this right now. We’ve got 15-20 people in our office. For the longest time, I was thinking about going to travel the world and being able to work from my laptop. But I thought I had the anchor of this office that was holding me back. This situation has forced us to shut our offices down. We’ve already told our team we wouldn’t return this year. We’ve started to ask them to give their honest feedback if this would be a permanent solution. They’re overwhelmingly leaned toward working from home. 

  • The lack of commuting was one of the big reasons. 
  • Productivity is another one. Whenever I’m in the office, I hear my name every 5 seconds. We’re finding that productivity is actually going up. People are putting in time on weekends.
  • Communication has gone up. People who were working remotely often felt out of loop and they don’t anymore. Everyone is over-communicating. 

I guess my only area of reticence is culturally: With the people you have, they have history together. But if you’re bringing a new hire, it’ll be more difficult to build that. In these open conversions, we are being clear that we’d still want to meet up one day a month and have a group strategy session. We’d also want to meet up and go down to the pub, for the culture. Because we don’t want to never see each other. But it’s been staggering to see what we thought was impossible, it kind of is!

[15:49] Allan: As soon as you said meeting up once a month, I thought it wouldn’t be at the office.

Mike: Not with Tom, man! Tom would be down at the pub every night. Let’s have a daily meetup!

Tom: I love a margarita! Case in point: Directly after this call, we have a virtual drinking hour with the team. 

[16:22] Allan: One of my friends introduced me to this beer app from which you can get a monthly delivery of beer. I didn’t realize I ordered $500 worth of beer. So I’m good for a while! I’ve got crates of beer stacked in my living room. As soon as I did that, I realized I needed to balance out the beer to wine consumption. I think that’s so cool though! Right before this happened, I was helping host an event in Paris. We ended up canceling it and then we decided to do it online. We ended up hosting it online. We also decided to do it online next year. Ninety percent of our attendees are from Europe. But now, we can have people from all over the world. I mentioned that because it applies to the mentality of not having enough design work wherever one may live. Or when you have to pay a fortune to live in, say, London or LA. Now that we’re global — be with an online event or freelance jobs — I’m sure there is someone out there looking for your services. The entire world has opened up to everyone. I think it’s an even level playing field.

Mike: It’s going to be interesting to watch what happens in the next 20 years, in terms of the global economy. While you were talking about this, I was thinking about some of these countries that get cheap clients. I get so many messages from Indian designers, [for example], who complain that a client will only pay them $10 USD. My response to them right now is you don’t have limitations on where you can find clients. Go find clients who will pay you more money. But what we’re going to see is that a lot of these great designers and creatives that live in some of these countries that notoriously drive prices down, they will start finding clients who are willing to pay more. The prices of their services will go up. And it will force the clients in those countries to eventually pay more as well. And we may see an increase in revenue for creatives all over the world.

Tom: I hope so! As you were saying this, I thought about Ren Segall. I just read his blogpost where he says, “Freelancing Myth No. 4: No one pays high prices where I live”; and underneath it says, “Every country has a premium market. India’s luxury market is 6.25 billion. You’re probably just working with the wrong clients.” 

[20:54] Allan: I love that! How often do you find that people make excuses for everything? You could give the best advice in the world and they still say, “Yeah, well, this won’t work for me!” Or, “Not in my city / country.” I just did a talk the other day about the 4-minute mile. Knowing that you can means that you can actually level up. I talked about from 25K to making 6 figures. But when you tell other people, they want to shoot it down. Because if my reality is true, that means they aren’t doing the work. What are your thoughts about that?

Mike: Let me touch on the book that I just read called Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. It by T. Harv Eker. It’s a really easy read, really enjoyable but the core concept of the book is that we all have a money blueprint in our minds. We are preconditioned to perceive money in a certain way. He uses the example of 10 million dollars and that to most people in the world, that’s an unattainable fortune. But he uses Donald Trump as an example (this book was written 10-15 years ago) and he had 10 million dollars, how would he feel? He would feel like a complete failure. Because his money blueprint is so much bigger and his perception of 10 million dollars is nothing. But to most people in the world, that’s a fortune. It’s our perception of the value of that that makes a difference. In that book, he talks about how we’re preconditioned to perceive money in a certain way. And if we want to make more money, we have to change our perception of what that is. Is earning a million dollars a year a reasonable thing? And if you believe that it is, you’re so much more capable of having that happen. If you believe that it’s an unattainable amount, then it’s never going to happen for you because you’re preconditioned. Your subconscious will make decisions for you that will inhibit you from attaining that amount. So we have to change our money blueprint. That’s the start.

Tom: I think that links into the scarcity mindset. Case in point, I have three part-time staff with my personal brand. One of them is my amazing graphic designer Teresa. She lives in South Africa and she’d share with me what the living expenses are over there. Working for me part-time amounted to half of her living expenses. She had this perpetual issue where she couldn’t find clients that would pay more and she’d be scared to push back. She thought she was stuck. I got a message from her this morning: She pushed back with a client and she’s growing her business. Just because I was paying her the buffer that gave her the confidence to do that. It was just a shift in her mindset. And to your question, Allan, my short answer is: I think there is a reason why all the entrepreneurial thought leaders shift away from actionable business content into mindset. Mike and I went into the actionable steps. But most people realized that the mindset part has a broader appeal. Combined with that, they’re sick with people not implementing the advice.

[26:16] Allan: This is the biggest frustration that I’ve had. I kept saying, “Stop focusing on the hard skills!” People thought if they just learned Maya, they’d get a job at ILM. No one I know succeeded that way. It had always to do with the mindset. “I had this realization that I was underselling myself. I had to treat my business as a business.” But it always began with soft skills. Even more recently, I deconstructed with the Creative Director of the new DOOM game who was saying, “We don’t care how talented you are, because if you’re an asshole, we won’t hire you!” That’s the critical thing. Knowing how to do the work is important. But being a good communicator, understanding and having self-reflection is more important. In the beginning, we aren’t in tune with that. We end up being naive about that.

Mike: My comment is to Dale Carnegie and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I talk about it a lot. It really transformed my life. It talks about how 85% of our success is due to human engineering:

  • Our personality;
  • Our leadership skills;
  • Our ability to communicate with others.

[28:40] And 15% of our success in life is due to our technical skills. It’s because of exactly what you said: If you’re a jerk, you aren’t ever going to get hired or promoted. But if you have those soft people skills fine tuned — but your technical skills are 5% worse — you’re still going to out-succeed over the jerk. When it comes to finding clients / jobs, it’s the same thing. Yes, I’m a good designer but I’m not going to be globally renowned for my design skills. I’m never going to be that designer that changed the world. But I excel in people skills. I can exude confidence and people trust me. Because I have integrity and people see that I have integrity. That’s why my business was successful. I was cranking out good design but it wasn’t my technical skills. It was my soft skills.

Tom: Although I’m realizing this more and more: We aren’t all cut from the same cloth. It’s different for everyone. I’m with Mike, I have soft skills. I love building communities and helping customers. On my other Podcast, my co-host hates that stuff. It gives him anxiety to deal with clients. He doesn’t enjoy dealing with people. But he’s unbelievable at email marketing, and the data that happens within his business, and automating things. That stuff makes my head hurt! I like the people stuff. If you’re listening to this: Lean into what your truest skillset is and realize that if it’s not those soft skills — if you’re a hardcore data nerd — that means you can partner with someone who has the soft skills. You can still be effective that way.

Mike: [31:53] Self-awareness! Be self aware: Am I good at this? Yes or no? And if no, you have two choices: You either get good with it. And you can! Or, option number two: Delegate against your weaknesses. That might mean partnering with someone who has the soft skills. Or you can hire someone who can be the business person for you. So you can be that hardcore data nerd. But those are your two options!

[32:37] Allan: I think that an interesting point. It’s really about surface level. When I was at ILM, most of the tools weren’t available publicly or commercially. You’re always going to be learning new software. You’re always going to have to pivot. Putting so much emphasis on this is one thing. The important thing about that is that you need to look internally: What is my Superpower? It may be that you’re good at talking to people. You may be really analytical. Focus on the things that really matter. I never saw myself as a business guy. I was an artist. But I was a freelancer and I noticed that the best places where I worked always had the scale of the business and the creative. The creative was always like, “Let’s do all of this!” and the producer would say, “We can only afford to do this!” It was always this really great combination. Figure out what your weaknesses are so you can lean into them; or, like you said, delegate to borrow those strengths from other people.

Tom: I love the Yin and Yang on that. I tend to be the visionary in my business, but I need reining in. And our CTO, I always tease him that he’s pessimistic. He’d always be like, “Let’s slow down!” And then you find the middle ground that has vision but is also practical. 

[35:42] Allan: You, guys, mentioned a little bit on the subject of the cost of living. I think so many people I know want to ask for a pay raise. I always compare that to a leaking ship. No matter how much of a raise you get, if you don’t know how to budget, you’re always going to need more money. You need to check your finances. If you were to move to a cheaper city, that’s your pay raise. You can target clients wherever the costs are higher. When I moved to Australia, it meant that I was making a lot more income. I think that’s a big shift and we’re in that element with COVID. In a few more years, what’s going to make a difference is not that you’re in a cheaper country — but how are you going to stand out? How are you going to become more viable?

Mike: You just described my life. I started my agency in LA and moving to Salt Lake City was a dramatic cut in cost of living. [My thought process was], “I’m going to move a lower cost state and city — and still have my connections to the premium market. I can charge less and still make much more profit than all the people living in LA!” It’s a great thing! These people who are living in poorer countries, there is a competitive advantage they should be taking. They can provide a less-cost service (I’m not saying cheap!) and still make as much money in profit or more than the people who are servicing their clients in major markets. Now the people in the major market should be the ones that are afraid for the next 20 years. You should be afraid that someone in India is going to learn Maya and do it at your level; and there is no detriment for Disney to outsource to that person in India. 

Tom: We’re seeing that with manufacturing already. I agree that the digital world is going in that direction as well. Can I share something about the mindset about money?

[40:05] Allan: No! (Laughs.) Go ahead, man! 

Mike: Uplift the audience, Tom!

Tom: True story! I’ve been running my company for 7 years. My car cost approximately $250. That’s its value right now! It has the bits on it that are falling off. It’s a terrible car and I wear it like a badge of honor. Everytime I look at it, I think, “I could have a fancy car but instead, I’m building a team and investing in my personal brand.” I had a staff member that drove a convertible sports car that was breaking down all the time, yet he still lived with his parents. I’m not judging him but there is a difference in values. For him, the car made him happy. [41:39] But I apply this all the time: Live below your means and reinvest in your business, and play the long game. I think there is a staggering lack of patience and humility in people, to allow them to do that.

[41:54] Allan: I love that!

Mike: The magic happens in 10 years, or 15 years when all of a sudden your decisions to be frugal at the start have these exponential returns. 

Tom: And everyone is like, “How the hell did you manage that?”

Mike: But your income just starts building on itself without effort because you’ve made smart decisions and you have some investments. 

Tom: And I do it because I grew up in an affluent area where getting into a ton of debt — just to impress the girls at the bar — and I hated that douchebag behavior. I thought I’d be the quietest in the room and win in the macro.

[42:56] Allan: When I was younger, I moved back to Australia. Even by saying that I lived in LA, people thought I was showing off. Wherever I went, I would tell them I was unemployed. Occasionally, you’d get the girl who would walk away. But most of the time, people took you at your face value. It wasn’t about how much money you were making or where you aligned with people’s needs. I thought that was interesting. One thing you mentioned, by living below your means it goes back to your part-time designer in South Africa, it meant that it gave her the buffer. For me and a lot of people, you get the big win and get growth in our business, it meant to either go buy that big house or to take several months off and go do that thing I wanted to do. That allowed me to reinvest in myself and get that growth. And that’s what changed my life: To take every big win and to reinvest it. Most of us don’t give ourselves that opportunity.

Tom: In the scheme of how we could be positioning things, we stay pretty quiet and building.

[45:56] Allan: That also means that you’re working on the big picture stuff behind the scenes. To touch on the piece of shit car, my wife being a car wrap designer, I’ve talked to her about her clients. A lot of her clients have Lamborghinis, etc. But if you wrap your car, you don’t need that. People wrap cars because they want the attention. But it’ll cost you so much less than buying an expensive car! It’s really about the messaging. What is the minimal viable product that’ll get the same result? What are your thoughts about nitching down? I’m interested to see when it becomes an equal playing field, how do you get clients? How do you have a message that wins them over?

Mike: One of the big transformational concepts that I started to understand. [48:06] The concept that there are two questions that need to be answered in a sale cycle when you’re trying to land a client: 

  • Question number one: Why should they buy the thing that you’re selling? Why should they buy it all
  • Question number two: Why should that buy that from you specifically?

If you can answer those two questions in the mind of your client, you’re going to close the sale. You have to have some kind of a unique value proposition that makes them decide, “Yes, we’re going to buy this thing!” You have Disney that wants to buy some motion graphics. They’ve already decided that they need to buy the thing. Half of your sale cycle is already done. All you have to do is convince them that they’re going to buy it from you. And most of the time, because of your reputation, they’ve already decided that too! Your sales process is so much easier. But most people without a reputation or those relationships yet have to figure out the answers to those two questions, especially Question Number Two. Why should they buy it specifically from you?

  • Sometimes, you offer the best price.
  • Sometimes, you produce the best quality.
  • Sometimes, it’s because you have the best personality that clicks with them.
  • Sometimes, you have some core expertise that other people don’t have.

But you have to figure it out for yourself: What is it that makes you so unique that they’re going to buy from you and not from somebody else?

Tom: I’m a massive fan of nitching! I think it’s so powerful! I’ve seen enormous growth that people have had in their businesses. They haven’t become more powerful or talented; they just pivoted their niche and it unlocked everything. How hard do we have to work that just an adjustment can unlock? For me, that’s where the power lies. If you’re trying to reach everyone, you render yourself invisible and you reach no one. The number of people who message me who pitch me their niche: “I’m trying to target humans that need design in the age between 12 and 46.” When you try to hone in your niche, it’s those basic marketing principles again: 

  • Whom are you trying to serve?
  • Where are those people?
  • How do you reach them?
  • How do you resonate with them?

And you can’t do that without that first step being defined. If you’re trying to reach everyone, where do you start? It doesn’t work!

[52:16] Allan: It also means that if you’re doing it, so if everyone else! How do you stand out from the noise? I always get a lot of resistance on this. I think a lot of people are afraid of opportunity cost. If I’m doubling down that I’m the best designer at doing logos for corporate companies that make ice cream, that’s going to be something people are afraid of because they don’t want to lose all those other jobs. When I lived in Australia, I had people come up to me and ask me if I was hiring. The cards they’d hand to me would kill me: “Designer / Wedding Photographer”. It sounded like people would do anything. The best example I could give is: When you have a headache and you’re looking at two types of medicine. One says, “Cures headaches,” and the other says, “Cures all aches and pains” — you’re going to go for the first one. Because it’s solving that one pain point you have. What are your thoughts on that?

Mike: If you know that there is a customer base that supports that business, it makes all the sense in the world because it answers Question Number Two: Why should they buy it from you? If you do title treatments for action movies, you can build a reputation around that one thing. When someone is shopping around for that, the unique value proposition you have is, “All I do is action movie title sequences and I did the Bond movies and I did The Transformers, etc.” If you can support that niche, are they going to choose the generic person or the person who does just the motion title sequences? If all else is equal, they’re going to choose you because you have a unique value proposition that matches their needs. But the scare for most people is, “Oh, no! I have less clients to go after!” You have to validate your niche by determining how many potential customers are in this pool. And can that quantity sustain your business? And if the answer is yes, then you should go all in on that niche! 

[56:33] Allan: That was going to be my next question. How do you figure out what your niche is going to be and how do you test it?

Tom: I know Mike is going to have a great answer on how to test your niche. But just to touch on the previous question, I’m going to start doing this: When someone starts pushing back on niching, I’m going to flip it and say, “Hold on! You’re a graphic designer and you’re more worried about niching than graphic design. So surely, you should start offering interior design.” And where does that end? So maybe you should niche down. There’s riches and there’s niches. I have friends that run 6-figure businesses in these micro niches that most people wouldn’t even bat an eye at. That’s the power of the internet. [58:02] Alongside that, one of the benefits of niching is the clarity and confidence that it gives you. You can see people and they’re like a deer in the headlines with this ephemeral market. When they define it, suddenly their copywriting improves, their pitching improves, they go in laser targeted with the people they’re trying to reach. And that alone has value and the revenue comes secondary to that.

[58:35] Allan: That’s awesome!

Mike: It’s so liberating! [58:38] When you figure out what niche you’re trying to fill, it’s so liberating in your marketing. Because now you know how to talk about your business. You know how to position yourself for a client. In my agency, I didn’t figure it out until 10 years in. But I was operating in it for 10 years. We were the Number 1 Third Bid Option for the entertainment industry. And what I mean by that is that Disney would get three bids. The first bid would be from a big agency in LA, bid number two would be from a big agency in New York, and bid number three was my agency in Salt Lake City. If Disney didn’t have enough money to work with the agencies in LA or NY, we were the number one choice in the lower cost tier. And I built a multi-million dollar agency based on that niche. It wasn’t me dragging the prices so low, we weren’t making any profit. I made a ton of money! But we did lose projects to the big agency in NY sometimes. But I had plenty of work being the Number One Third Bid Option. And once I realized this, it changed how I marketed my business to my clients. I would play up the cost effective solution. I would play up that I started in LA. I understood their business but I could provide a more cost effective solution. It changed how I priced my work and the paradigm of everything. 

[1:01:20] Allan: That’s awesome! If I could ask two more questions: How important do you think building a story brand is? And if you could explain that too. Tom, when I mentioned to Christina that I was talking to you today, she talked about burnout. She gave me part of your story brand. Same thing with Mike: A guy from LA who goes back home to be with his family and has a lifestyle shift and still has big clients. There are tidbits of information for every person. How critical is that?

Tom: I think that’s pretty huge! You’ve mentioned story within branding? Have you read Donald Miller’s How to Tell a Story

[1:02:50] Allan: Pretty much every book you, motherfuckers, talked about I have. (He presents the book from his bookshelf.)

Tom: I think it’s important for all kinds of reasons. Just humans connect and resonate with stories on a human level. From a brand perspective, brand is how the market perceives you. Mike likes to make the point of the fact that it’s not a passive thing. You shape that through effective branding! You get to choose and shape how the market perceives you. That book teaches you the framework to understand things. It walks you through how you’re not the hero of the story — your customer is! You’re a guide. You’re not Luke in Star Wars, you’re a Yoda. And that breaks down how to put the spotlight on your customers better. I’m a fan, certainly from a brand perspective. People connect more with a story. So Christina remembered my story of my burnout when I put myself in a hospital after working a hundred hours a week. I made myself chronically sick. For two years after that, I could barely stand and eat while trying to manage my company. That’s a story and it’s more compelling than, “Yeah, here is my LinkedIn profile.”

Mike: Just to echo on that, it’s everything. [1:05:40] And it’s a personal story as well. Yes, there is a business story. And people connect with the personal story more. Business is a human to human transaction, at the end of the day. When you embrace that and realize that your business story is your personal story, it can change the way you position your business. It can make you memorable. I remember Tom’s story and he was posting pictures of himself at the hospital. Once you have that, it’s a memorable connection. It helps me understand and empathise with Tom. If you don’t share your unique story, you’re doing it at the detriment of people connecting to you on a deeper level. I’m all for authenticity. And Podcasts are great for that! Probably your numbers are so high is because people love to tune in every week and you’ve shared your life with people. That wouldn’t happen if you didn’t open up. 

Tom: When you touched on the story, my mind went to the underground in London. You’d see these ginormous billboards for Jack Daniels. They never say, “Buy our whiskey because…” They had this giant story on the board and you get invested in the backstory of the company, not what that whiskey is comprised of. It’d be like Apple not saying, “Think Different.”

[1:09:28] Allan: That’s what I think is so powerful! You, guys, know marketing as this sleazy thing. But it’s really just understanding how to communicate and what your message is. A lot of the time, it’s been about knowledge through story. Most powerful speakers use analogy. My friend who just visited works in film, but he also wants to do landscape photography. I told him that when you’re buying someone’s photo, you’re buying it because of the story of the photographer. Story is everything! For everyone listening, it’s such a wasted opportunity when they shy away from telling their story in a job interview. I know this is the biggest excuse for everyone: How do you get clients? Maybe you could direct people to five of your Podcast Episodes.

Mike: We do have those five Episodes that talk about it. But let me give you one juice nugget: [1:13:19] Your clients, especially at the start, will come from people that you know. People who trust you. Most often, these are people you went to school with, for example. And they now have the budget to be sending people to you. They’ve already liked you and trusted your skillset. So when you’re trying to find clients, that’s the first place you go. You don’t go to Fiver and Instagram thinking you’d find random clients. You go to people you know. If they don’t have work for, they may share your name around. But it’s a relationship game, especially in creative services. If you have a relationship, the chances of your getting work go drastically up. So trying to find cold contacts because you’re messaging random people is so ineffective compared to going people after people you know, like and trust. It’s so fundamentally true! That’s where you’ll find your first clients. Overtime, you can build your reputation. 

Tom: I completely agree and Mike always talks about starting with hot and warm leads. And only when they’re exhausted, go to cold leads. The only thing I’d add, if you’ve exhausted your network, you need to work smarter — not harder. How I got early traction was asking through members’ premium community for fellow entrepreneurs. That became my niche. That group cost $35 per month. It’s not a huge expense but it filtered people out. They had a built-in trust. In that group, it was easier to build connections and not have any competition. I’m a huge fan of finding these micro communities. We talk about the pond where the only designer.

[1:16:50] Allan: Guys, this has been awesome and I appreciate your sitting down! Where can people go to find out more about you?

Mike: Our Podcast is at www.BizBuds.libsyn.com.

[1:18:17] Allan: This is great, guys! Thanks so much!

Mike and Tom: Thanks again, Allan! This was so much fun!


What did you think? Pretty awesome stuff! I want to thank Mike and Tom for their time.

  • Next week, I’m interviewing the Founder of KeenTools, which is pretty much the industry standard for face tracking and modeling. It’s become a pretty revolutionary tool. It’s so easy and fast to use, which is the revolutionary part! 
  • I also have Mark Toia on the Podcast who is a film Director. If you shoot with RED cameras, you’ll know him.
  • I’m also interviewing the CEO of EmberGen.
  • I did another Episode with Nick Seavert about business and starting a company.

Until next week —

Rock on!


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