10 Great Business Lessons That I'll Never Forget

I’ve had the good fortune to work with talented people over the years. Some of these people taught me lessons outright, and from others, I learned important lessons just by watching them. There are too many lessons to list in a single post, but here are some things that stuck with me:

Competition Is Everywhere (Carlo Voelker)

I didn’t understand competition until my first boss broke it to me during my final days at his company. I was leaving to start my own business with a friend, a lifestyle website, and boasted that we had no competition. Our website was going to offer a practical take on all of the unrealistic clothes, gadgets and travel destinations that you’d find in men’s magazines. But Carlo told me a bitter truth: Competition was everywhere. If someone watched a movie instead of reading my website, the movie was a competitor. If someone went outside to play soccer instead of visiting my website, then soccer was a competitor. When you have a business that revolves around people spending time with your product, then anything that steals someone’s attention or occupies their time is a competitor.

Keep on Tweaking (Tony Costa)

I worked as a graphic designer in the beginning of my career, and like many artists, I was defensive about my work. Tony broke me of that defensiveness and made me a better designer. He just kept bombarding me with more revisions than I could possibly defend against. I remember designing 85 different covers for the retail package of one video game. At certain points in the creative process, I’d scrap my work and start with something fresh. Then we’d tweak that until it came alive or until we scrapped it for something better. The real lesson I learned from Tony is: Don’t get attached to anything; you can do it better.

Defend Your People (Glenn Hall)

I caused a stir in my first week in Glenn’s newsroom. One of our reporters wrote a story, on my recommendation, that attacked the business model of one of our advertisers. I learned this when the head of sales came gunning for my head in front of everyone. Glenn, who’s as even-tempered as anyone you’ll ever meet, inserted himself between us and basically told that executive “too damn bad.” It wasn’t a great story that I had suggested. Glenn knew that. But he was making sure that I didn’t get my spirits broken and that all of his staff could have complete confidence to write anything that they wanted as long as it was fair, accurate and served our readers. Glenn demonstrated integrity that day, and every other, because integrity is all or nothing.

Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission (Mike Carmine)

I was a film major at NYU and I got a taste of how bureaucratic it can be to make a movie (even a short one). I once spent an entire day bouncing between two NYU administration offices trying to get permission to film something on their own campus! Mike was one of my professors there and he had a different attitude: Just do it. Don’t ask. Just do it as long as you’re not putting anyone in danger or someone’s property at risk. I’ve used that advice to great benefit in my career. There’s always a committee that will shoot a great idea dead, but if you can prove the concept yourself, then do it. Ideas are easier to ignore than results.

Give a Little Extra (Khawaja Munir Mashooqullah)

Being shrewd is not the same thing as being greedy. I learned this from Munir when he invested in an online magazine that I co-founded. (To be fair, the magazine was the baby of my business partner, Eddie Hertzman. I just tagged along for the ride.) When my partner and I pitched Munir our idea, he sent us home with a $5,000 check before we drew up any paperwork. That made it real for us and we busted our humps after that. When we hired an agency to build our website, Munir suggested that we give them an advance. Maybe they’d give our project extra attention. The moral is that people do their best work when they’re focused on their work. My best bosses gave me raises before I even thought to ask for one. Worrying about money is a huge drain on time and productivity. If you can give a little extra to take away those worries, you can get a lot in return.

Opportunity Is Everywhere (Eddie Hertzman)

Eddie and I started an online magazine in 2006. It grew through 2007, faltered in 2008 and failed in 2009. Eddie took a job touring clothing factories around the world (he had previously worked for a clothing company). When he was in countries like China, Pakistan and Vietnam, he noticed all kinds of things. Extreme weather. Political drama. Stuff like that might prevent a company from getting their goods, regardless of how the factory was performing. Eddie would have killed for information like that in his old job, so he started a blog and talked about the things he saw. Then he put up a pay wall. After that, he offered free trials to apparel executives and fashion schools. He turned that blog into the biggest trade journal in the textile industry: Sourcing Journal.

Be Honest With Yourself (Stephen Berner)

I reached out to a friend when my business was failing in 2008. She worked in HR for a media agency and I had an interest in advertising. There were no job openings, but she brought me in to speak with an executive. I have no idea why Stephen agreed to meet with me. He took me to lunch and we talked for hours. I told him all about my business. It was failing, but I was talking about it like it was a success. Stephen patiently listened to everything that I had to say, and when I was done, this is what he told me: “Sounds like you have a hobby, but not a business. But only you know that for sure.” We finished lunch and talked about art and life and business. When I got home, I started contacting recruiters. It’s no fun admitting failure, but it’s the only way to grow.

Take a Class (Marie Arteca)

I really wanted to get into advertising, so I put together a portfolio and sent it off to recruiters. Nobody bit. So, I followed up with phone calls. Nobody answered, except for Marie. My portfolio stunk. She told me (but in a gentle way). Then she told me to take a night class and gave me a few programs to look at. I found a handful of classes that looked interesting and asked her about the instructors. She knew all of them and recommended a class where she knew that I’d get boot-camped into shape (or find a different industry to dream about). I learn something new every day, but there’s no substitute for finding a good teacher.

Reward Effort (Kash Sree)

I took an advertising class at night in J. Walter Thompson’s New York office with Kash Sree, the Executive Creative Director. I thought I nailed my first assignment. Nope. Kash ripped my ad to shreds and then he ripped me to shreds in front of the class because I had only brought in one idea (and I made the mistake of defending that idea). It was brutal, and a handful of students dropped out after that first night. I didn’t because I had something to prove. When I showed up for the second class, I could see Kash’s surprise that I came back. But, this time, I was packing 30 different ads for assignment number two. He tore those ads to shreds, too, but he praised me for the volume of ideas and told me to keep at it. Kash was an insanely busy guy and he probably had no business teaching a class, but he did it anyway because he believed in giving back. If you made an effort, he would make an effort to work with you. Even after the class finished, Kash made time to look at my work. Effort is the best reward for effort because it teaches people all of the right lessons: Work hard and give back.

Do Something Different (Kurt Tietjen)

I’ve worked with/for Kurt for six years, and he’s always practiced what he preaches. If you’re stuck in a rut, stop whatever you’re doing and take a walk. If you’re on a roll, take a step back and look at things in a different way. Work from home for a day. Go sit on the roof. Look someplace you’ve never looked before. Do something different. The only real way to get a complete view of things is to constantly change your perspective.