Old School Advice for Startups

In an era hooked on shiny new ideas, it’s important to revisit some old-fashioned business rules that are still relevant for today’s startups.

JFP Hayhurst (Jim's Dad). Photo provided by Jim Hayhurst.

Less than a year before the Great Crash of 1929 — and more than 40 years before the Mad Men era — my grandfather started an ad agency. He announced it with a printed card.

Like any startup, his company needed to do three things to get noticed: Concisely present its story (the cover was almost tweetable); demonstrate relevant experience (his dad came from an established agency) and declare the company “persona” (classy and understated, just like my grandfather).

People who worked for my grandfather’s ad agency told me it succeeded because it kept things simple. And so, perhaps it’s not a bad time to revisit some Old School Golden Rules that remain relevant for startups today.

It’s not about your grass seed. It’s about their lawn.

The story goes that in the mid-70s, a grass seed company started selling in Canada. During the agency search, the company focused on the science behind their product. Decades of research and millions of dollars had created the perfect mix of seed and fertilizer. Naturally, most agencies created pitches around that.

But one agency surprised the client by not mentioning the product at all. Instead, it told the story of people’s lawns: Lawns that impressed neighbours. Lawns that kids played on. Lawns that made people happier just by being green, lush and full.

In startup land, we’re all proud of our technologies, products and services — and rightly so. But no one really cares about that. We all use phrases like unique, innovative and patent-pending. But no one’s actually buying our intellectual property or processes.

Our customers are buying what the product does for them. And the better we describe that — and the sooner we stop talking about our grass seed and start describing their lawns — the quicker we pull them into the picture.

When they’re talking, we’re winning.

My father joined the agency in the 1960s. He loved to tell stories, interact with employees and strategize with clients. And he was brilliant at it. Under his leadership, the agency grew to be one of the largest in Canada.

Whenever there was a big account to land, he was invited for the first meeting to show how important that client was. But before he walked in, his team would pause and say: “Remember, Jim … When they’re talking, we’re winning.”

The obvious truth here is that we need to listen in order to understand. Less evident is this: People like to talk about themselves. And when they do, they feel better and share more.

My wife’s father does not have the same affliction as my dad. In fact, he had a rule for his daughters when they were growing up: “Spend 80 per cent of any conversation asking questions.” He’s so good at it that people leave his parties saying, “I just had the most fascinating conversation with Brian …” even though all he did was let them talk.

Try reminding yourself about what winning “sounds like” next time you meet a client. See how it feels and what you learn. You might be surprised.

Everyone sells our services. Everyone services our clients. Everyone is our brand.

In the late 1970s, my father needed a new executive assistant. The head of HR said, “Go down to the second floor typing pool and pick one out.”

Looking back, my dad’s response was pretty advanced for its day: “Look, I’m not looking for a new telephone. I’m looking for a human being who will be the first person clients meet when they come to my office. In 30 seconds, how that person acts will be how our agency is remembered by the people who pay our bills.”

Not finding suitable candidates in-house, he looked further afield without success. Finally, on a flight from London to New York, he found someone. She had never worked in an office, rarely answered telephones, barely typed and knew nothing about advertising. What she did know about was customer service, in stressful situations, for high-end clientele.

She was the head of the airline’s first-class flight crew. And he made an offer on the spot.

Over the next 30 years, she personified the agency’s brand for many. She may not have signed clients, but she certainly saved some. And it wasn’t by typing 80 words per minute.

Think about who interacts with your clients and who doesn’t. Every interaction they have is an opportunity to reinforce (or diminish) your company’s value and brand.

The Basics of Brand Loyalty

My experience of taking technical employees out “into the wild” for client discovery almost always ends well for all sides. When well-prepped, the employees tend to talk less about our “grass seed” (the cool stuff they build) and ask more questions about clients’ “lawns” (what they’re trying to do with it). It’s a perfect combination of lessons one and two.

Business was tough in 1928, and it remains so today. Competition for talent is fierce, markets are ever-changing and clients have more choices than ever. As Mad Men’s Don Draper said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” He was right.

But so were my grandfather and my father. They knew that some basics have remained unassailable. Business is about lawns, not grass seed; listening to win and knowing that your brand lives in everything and everyone with your name on it.

Any company that does that should be around for a long time.

Jim Hayhurst is a trusted advisor to purpose-driven organizations and leaders. He is currently active in six companies and social impact projects that elevate Victoria’s reputation as a hub of innovation, collaboration and big thinking.

This article is from the August/September 2019 issue of Douglas.