Reflections of an Irreverent Entrepreneur

ith my retirement I’ve been reflecting on what made PowerSpeaking successful over the past three decades. An invitation from the Saratoga Rotary Club prompted me to make a list. In September I shared my “insights” with that club, then again with the Morgan Hill Rotary Club in October.

I wondered how my list would be received by other small business owners. Were my ideas unique to me and to PowerSpeaking, or were they universal? Too my delight, after both talks a number of people came up and expressed their thanks, saying “Yep. That is pretty much the way it’s been in my company too.” 

To see a video of the talk made from digital audio and stills, go to: Lots of stories and humor. Here, in brief, are the points I made (all are elaborated in the video): 

1) Be a Quitter: Know when to hold ’em; and know when to fold ’em.

In business we must be able to know when something, or someone is not working and make changes fast. Forget the “Quitters never win and winners never quit” nonsense. What crap.


2)  Be a Pessimist

Years ago, it dawned on me that pessimists like me are never disappointed. If it doesn’t work out – just as I expected. If it does – that’s great. Recent research indicated that optimists are generally more depressed than pessimists.

I used an example from my days at Amdahl. The war between sales and engineering was legendary. To counterbalance the unrealistic optimism of the salespeople, the CEO got up at an “All Hands” meeting and acknowledged the conflict. He commented: “I have the solution, the ideal Amdahl employee: an Amdroid. This is an engineer who can exaggerate and a salesperson who can tell the truth. “


3) Be Skeptical: Have a Good Crap Detector

Like many fields, training and development has lots of sacred cows, that when you dig deeper, turn out to be total myths. I used the example that “You remember 10% of what you hear and 30% of what you hear and see, and 60% of what you hear, see, and do.”

Turns out a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, department of Chemical Engineering, just made up those numbers because “they seemed about right.” 


4)  Be Slow to Hire / Fast to Fire

Often desperate to fill a void, it is easy to make a job offer too quickly without doing the proper background checking. When someone doesn’t work out, it is sometimes hard to fire them, thus demoralizing the team. Take your time to hire, and be quick to fire someone who isn’t working out.


5) Be unique: Take a (calculated) Risk

Robert Luft of GM once said, “The worst risk is no risk at all.”  I would add: be well informed about what could go wrong. 

In 1999, Palm came out with an add for their Palm Pilot featuring a naked dancer named Kate Hunter holding the small device that said, “Simply Palm.” I loved it. Breakthrough. Creative. So I decided to create an ad, “Simply PowerSpeaking!”

I’ve always been proud how we innovate. I went into the photo studio with my microphone and nothing else. The photographer did a great job. I was getting ready to send the postcard out as a marketing piece to our 6,000 person mailing list. Suddenly it occurred to me to check with the marketing department at Palm. 

I sent them the mockup. Two days later, I got a call, “You don’t want to do this. The dancer will sue you. The photographer will sue you. The graphic designer will sue you. And, of course, Palm will sue you. We will squash your company like a grape!” Well, alrighty then. The postcard never saw the light of day.

Lesson learned: Be creative. Take risks… but do your homework.


6) Be Free of PowerPoint

“Death by PowerPoint,” ha, ha. It’s not funny. In our Speaking Up program, we hear horror stories of careers coming off the tracks because presenters attempted to show decision makers their 30 slide PowerPoint deck. 

Some companies are actually banning this presentation software. They want discussions, not slide shows. A recent study at Stanford compared PowerPoint, TED-type images of simple photos, and whiteboard presentations. The whiteboards were 17% – 20% more successful on measures such as retention and speaker credibility, among others.


7) Be Improvisational: Speaking Up

In 2001, I coached a vice president to do what always works, tell stories. He got creamed at his C-level quarterly review by the senior team. Turns out we had no idea why speaking to top leadership is SO different than speaking to a general audience. 

We began improvising to discover what the secret was. We poured a huge amount of resources into finding a solution to this problem. Today more than 10,000 people have gone through Speaking Up, I have written a book about it, and PowerSpeaking is known for this expertise. 

8) Be Generous: Its Not About the Money 

From the birth of PS, I was clear that it has never been about the money. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a capitalist (well, sort of) and planned to run a profitable business. I always felt, though, by focusing on higher order issues like having a quality product, treating people well, and helping people grow, that the money will take care of itself. 

For example, when the company was smaller and our bookkeeping processes were pretty loose, we paid trainers on the day of the program. We did not make them wait until we got paid by the client, which could take up to 90 days. Result: grater loyalty. Nowadays they get paid every two weeks – still different than the rest of our industry.

9) Be Human: Relationships Are Key 

Over the years, we’ve hired several PR firms to get the word out. Results = zero. In our small business, relationships is what creates growth. We have consistently put on “client events,” invited clients to our parties, taken clients to dinner, etc. This is what creates long-term commitment to PS.

Example. A while ago, one of the sailors on Oracle’s winning Americas Cup racing yacht came to me for coaching. Brad Webb has a San Francisco business taking teams of people out on the Bay on his AC yacht. I suggested we trade services. He got PS training, we took 15 clients out on the Bay. See it:

This kind of relationship building makes our future strong. Beats PR anytime. 




10) Be Funny … As Appropriate

Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” I always tried to lighten it up with humor, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Business transactions can be serious affairs. Time and money are not laughing matters. 

Years ago while selling an IRS training manager on a PS program, I was struck by how serious he was. Against my better judgment, I attempted to add some humor, “So, Bob, I’ll give you the program for 50% off, it you’ll promise not to audit us.” …long silence on the phone line. Trying to recoup, “Bob I was only joking…” We did get the program, but that was a hard lesson.

11) Be Good to Your Vendors

Lawyers, accountants, IT specialists, graphic designers, AV experts, HR consultants – all these people were critical to keeping PSI afloat. We depended on them. We never hassled with vendors about their fees, and we paid them promptly. We invited vendors to our parties and client events. We treated them, in a word, like part of the team. Consequently when we had a crisis, they returned our phone calls. 


These 11 points reflect my business values. I am hugely proud of the success PSI had being run in a humanistic manner. Of course all of this depends on having a good product and meeting a need in the marketplace, which we had and we did.

4 thoughts on “Reflections of an Irreverent Entrepreneur

  1. Larry Bourret says:

    Wealth of information Rick. I came away from your class circa 1992 with a feeling of accomplishment that helped me with presentations I gave to management and staff while at Silverado Resort in adopting new accounting reporting methods, retirement and health plans. In addition to so many of your power speaking tools the use of hand gestures, keeping my arms relaxed, the most important concept of all was to engaged to know your audience. One last thing. At one of Wayne’s breakfast some years ago in Point Richmond I was asked to stand up and share with the group my high points and low points in high school. I shared that while there were probably low points I only remember the high notes. That I was fortunate to have gone to school with so many unique and talented people. I told them I was always in awe of the athlete’s in our class because they seemed so much more mature and simply put, good people. After I finished one of the athlete’s named "Blue" had gone to Burbank but graduated from St. Mary’s High School got up to share and began by pointing to me and said in a not so nice way "now there’s a bull-shitter. Even though he was serious, everyone laughed it off. After breakfast I approached him outside the restaurant out of ear shot from the rest of the gang and told him my share was sincere and that even though we never knew each other perhaps his problem is he doesn’t know how to accept a complement. He gave me a glare and walked off. he came to a few more events but have never seen him since. Sometimes no matter how sincere, how prepared, there’s always that one negative and difficult person that gives merit to "Be slow to hire, fast to fire."

    Thanks Rick.

  2. Chris Robson says:

    Rick, this is so enlightening for me. Thank you for sharing these extremely insightful thoughts based on your illustrious experience. I am grateful,


    Chris Robson (associate of Greg Bezat if you didn’t make the connection!)

  3. Bill Spaulding says:

    With my freshly minted Cal MBA I had the "pleasure" of being the first Management Development guy in a company with old upper management and no middle/lower management. I was fast tracked through the entire marketing group and after 3 years I picked where I wanted to be, the plan was we could then take over from the retiring old guard. They say your first job is just your advanced degree without the college credits. After 15 years, I had my PHD in corporate BS and quit to start a small sales company selling primarily to the company I just left as well as 100 smaller mom and pops here in the Bay Area.

    Your points are excellent, but the one that struck home was "Pesimist". I thought I was the only one who started everyday with the thought I would be fired, end up on the streets with two pennies to my name. I did my best each day so that would not happen. I agree Power Point is way overused, hiring is a major decision but prompt firing is as important. Prompt payment is a given if you want decent treatment later and relationships are critical. A sense of humor is VERY important if the client shows he has one—tip—most govt employees don’t because they are too busy proving their relevance as you learned.

    BUT in my opinion, the most important lesson is the Golden Rule of business—be nice to everybody on your way up—you never know who your boss will be on the way down….

    Good stuff Rick and I have passed it to my daughter who is just starting up the Corp ladder at her job.

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