‘Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive…’ part five

Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club is a free service made possible with the help of the Sprott Foundation


Built to Sell:
Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You
By John Warrillow
Published by Portfolio
ISBN: 9781591843979
Copyright © 2011 by John Warrillow

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“Back at the office, Alex took an inventory of projects that needed to get done for the week. In addition to finding a way to placate John Stevens, the Stapleton Agency needed to design and print the “Free Checking” branch posters for MNY’s retail banking group; redo a Web site for the largest BMW dealership in town; optimize the Web site of a local bike shop to improve its natural search ratings; design a logo for a new software company; and write a direct mail package for MNY’s credit card division. It would be a busy week and Alex needed extra effort from each of his employees.

Before he was able to panic too much, Alex forced himself to confront the first task of the day—reviewing the most recent draft of a direct mail letter his only copywriter, Tony Martino, had created for MNY Bank’s new travel rewards credit card. Tony was by all accounts a mediocre writer, but he had chosen a career in advertising because he thought it would make him more attractive to the opposite sex. He had been in the bottom half of his class at college, and upon graduation had bounced around five agencies over three years. On his resume, Tony characterized his long stretches of unemployment as “freelancing,” which was a charitable interpretation of his time spent toggling between video games and online poker. Somehow, Tony had managed to land a short stint at a respected agency in town, so eight months ago, when Alex was desperate for a copywriter, he hired Tony after a thirty-minute interview.

Now Alex regretted his haste. Tony’s most recent copy was a string of bad cliches held together with spelling and grammatical errors despite the fact that it was his third draft. Alex drew a large black line diagonally across the page and scribbled “REWRITE” at the top. He tossed the page to the side of his desk and promised himself to get rid of Tony as soon as he could replace Sarah.

Since Sarah had been preoccupied with the project for John Stevens, Alex had put his youngest designer, Elijah Kaplan, in charge of the “Free Checking” branch posters. Elijah came in to show Alex’s his designs, and even though Alex thought they might be a little too edgy for the bank’s taste, he was relieved that they were done. He sent Elijah to have the posters proofed and printed in the morning. That left Chris Sawchuk as the only designer to work on the Web site for Buddy’s BMW and the optimization project for the bike store. Chris was reasonably savvy with Web sites but by no means a specialist. Through some reworking of copy and tags, he had managed to get the bike store ranked fourth among Google natural searches for road bikes and fifth for bike service. The client wanted to be first or second in both categories. Chris broke the news to Alex.

“I can’t get them above the fold. I’ve tried all of my usual tricks and they’re still only coming up fourth.”

Alex resigned himself to another difficult conversation with a client.

Elijah was the son of a marketing manager at MNY Bank, so Alex had been inclined to hire him six months ago. Word had circulated among the design team that Sarah was leaving, and Elijah spotted his opportunity.

“Hey, Alex, do you have a minute?”

“Sure, Elijah, come on in.”

Elijah walked into Alex’s office and closed the door behind him.

“I’ve been here six months now and we’re stretched pretty thin these days. I’ve been logging some late nights and I think it’s time I get a little bump in my salary.”

Alex started counting under his breath so as not to explode. Because Elijah’s mother worked at MNY Bank, he was given a starting salary that was 10 percent higher than was typical for a junior designer. Alex was furious that this little brat had used Sarah’s resignation to ask for a raise when he knew full well Alex couldn’t refuse.

Choosing his words carefully, Alex said, “What do you have in mind, Elijah?”

“I think a $5,000 raise would get me to where my peers from design school are. It seems fair under the circumstances.” Alex decided to buy himself some time.

“Elijah, you’re a key member of the team and I appreciate the extra work you’ve been putting in lately. Let’s set up a meeting next week where we can sit down for an hour and talk about your progress over the past six months. I’ll consider your request and will have an answer when we meet next week.”

Elijah, sensing he had his prey on the ropes, agreed.

The following Tuesday, Ted greeted Alex warmly and offered him the same leather chair beside the coffee table.

“So how was your week?” Ted asked.

“Brutal,” admitted Alex. “My best designer is leaving, I need to find a writer who can write copy for a credit card campaign, a web guy who can decode Google’s black box, and my youngest designer wants a raise despite being barely qualified to create a branch poster.”

“Sounds like you had a tough week,” Ted said. “Did you give some thought to the question I asked you last week?”

Alex had spent time thinking about the types of projects the Stapleton Agency was really good at. He had started by sifting through a file of thank-you letters and testimonials from clients. He looked at the time sheets his designers submitted and tracked them back to his most profitable projects. He also thought about the disaster projects over the last year and made a list of the ones that had caused the most problems.

“It seems the work we’re best at is designing logos. We have a system we follow every time we get asked to create a product logo. Clients like the work we produce and we’re able to charge a good dollar because clients know a product logo is something they will use for a long time. Once we create one product logo, we have our foot in the door and clients often come back as they launch new products.”

Ted considered Alex’s conclusion. “Tell me about the system you follow for creating logos.”

“It’s nothing too formal, but we always start off by asking the client to describe their vision for their product and how they differentiate themselves from their competitors.”

Ted began to make notes. “That sounds like a good first step. Let’s call it Visioning.”


“What’s the next step?” asked Ted.

“After we establish the client’s goals, we go through an exercise where we ask the client to personify their product. For example, we’ll ask questions like, ‘If your product was a famous actor, who would they be?’ and ‘If your product was a rock star, who would they be?’ One of our favorite questions is a little goofy: ‘If your.product was a cookie, what kind of cookie would it be?’ These questions force the client to think about the personality they want to come through in their logo.”

“That sounds unique, Alex. Let’s call that step two and give it a name like Personification.”


“What’s your next step in designing a logo?”

“We then go back to the office and use a pencil and paper to freehand sketch a bunch of ideas. We’ll use the business the client is in along with their vision and the personification exercise to come up with a few icons that represent their product.”

“Why don’t you use a computer for this step?”

“We’ve found that if you use a computer to show a client rough drafts, they tend to focus on small details they don’t like instead of judging the concepts. So by showing them concepts in rough, we force them to focus on high-level ideas instead of details like colors or fonts.”

“Let’s call this step Sketch Concepts.”

Ted updated his notes with the following:


(This excerpt from Built to Sell by John Warrillow ends on page 15 of the hardcover.)



According to John Warrillow, the number one mistake entrepreneurs make is to build a business that relies too heavily on them. Thus, when the time comes to sell, buyers aren’t confident that the company–even if it’s profitable–can stand on its own.

To illustrate this, Warrillow introduces us to a fictional small business owner named Alex who is struggling to sell his advertising agency. Alex turns to Ted, an entrepreneur and old family friend, who encourages Alex to pursue three criteria to make his business sellable:

* Teachable: focus on products and services that you can teach employees to deliver.

* Valuable: avoid price wars by specializing in doing one thing better than anyone else.

* Repeatable: generate recurring revenue by engineering products that customers have to repurchase often.


John Warrillow has started and exited four companies and is a sought-after speaker and angel investor. He is a regular contributor, writing about small business, for Inc.com and WSJ.com.

next week, another selection in the Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club, a free service made possible with the help of the Sprott Foundation

About Dawn Montgomery

Dawn Montgomery doesn't believe in boxes. In 2009 she gained access to the hidden job market by connecting with commuters on the GO train, receiving coverage from The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Hamilton Spectator, plus interviews with Canada AM, CHML 900 and That Channel; however, this was not the first example of her "box?...what box?" thinking. On arrival as an immigrant to Canada the anticipated job and accommodation were no longer available, so she sourced another opportunity and, seven days later, with suitcase of heels and coordinating bags, drove 1804k to the logging and mining community of Ear Falls (pop. 1500) Ontario; it was January, the journey took five days, she stayed two years...the path less travelled is a familiar one!
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