Getting Real: Chris Brogan On Making Human Business Work

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Chris Brogan is on a mission, though it may not be the one you think…

He’s one of the most ubiquitous people on the internet, a speaker at conferences and events globally and prolific beyond measure. But, did you ever wonder what Brogan is really building these days? What’s working phenomenally well for him? And what’s not? Whether he’s happy? Who he’s trying to help? And how? And what his kids think about it?

If you’d tuned in to his world a few years back, you’d have said, “oh, he’s that social media guy.” But increasingly, Brogan’s been marching to the beat of a different drummer. No so much expanding what he’s about, but liberating, revealing and building around the “other” Chris Brogan. The one that’s about seeing lightbulbs go on in the minds of mom and pop shops and dollars go into their pockets and their kids’ college funds.

Recently, I sat down with Chris to talk about all of these things, with a special focus on his current company—Human Business Works—a collective of small business solutions that Chris is building as a multi-tentacled collaborative effort.

And, I asked Chris some hard questions, the ones above, and a lot more. As you watch, listen to or read his thoughts in the show transcript, pay particular attention to not only what he’s saying, but the very fact that he’s saying what so many others keep closeted. That willingness to come clean with both highs and lows, to be publicly human, is one of the things that endears so many people to Chris and makes him a teacher worth learning from.

Now, it’s time to bring you this weeks episode of Getting Real, featuring Chris Brogan:

———————-SHOW NOTES———————–

Human Business Works is Chris Brogan’s most recent endeavor. It’s focus is to provide, tools, support and strategies for small businesses, often home-based operations, in an effort to help them flourish, especially in challenging times. Right now, the focus is in three areas, Kitchen Table Talks (a community for small businesses to learn and share), 501 Mission Place (a resource for non-profit leaders), and Blog Topics (a weekly newsletter designed to help make it easier for small businesses to create valuable content).



Jonathan Fields: Hello, people of earth. This is Jonathan Fields hanging out with Chris Brogan. Chris, say “Hello.”

Chris Brogan: Hello, Jonathan and people of earth.

Jonathan Fields: All right. So why are we here today? Why are we hanging out? Well, if you hang out in the blogosphere, you already know who Chris is. I don’t need to actually explain it to you. If you don’t hang out in the blogosphere — and a lot of my readers actually don’t, they’re sort of more small business people — you may not know Chris. So I want to introduce Chris and also share what he’s up to in the not sort of directly social media related world in the small business world because there’s some really cool new stuff today. So Chris, I would love you just take a second here and just sort of share who are you?

Chris Brogan: Sure. So I have been in business for a while. My background was in telecom. I was in landline telecom and then wireless telecom. And then for a long time I had been doing this online media stuff, this blogging and journaling and all this kind of stuff. And then somewhere around the end of ’06 I left telecom and started running conferences in the world of video and the impact of internet video on TV and film and entertainment, and this brings me up to now where I’ve been involved in starting a couple of marketing companies, one of them for really big businesses, Fortune 100s and sometimes 500s.

And along the way I really started getting interested in what small business needed and could use for help and how the things the small business could do would be a little more impactful because I was a small business. My company was three people big, and I was always going up against companies that were — their marketing department was three times the size of my company. So I found myself saying, “Wow! There’s a lot of leverage here. There’s a lot of neat stuff we could do. How do I educate and provide tools and smarts for people in small business world that would be useful to them?”

So I started another company, as if I had nothing else to do, called Human Business Works which — the goal was to help people build sustainable relationship by their businesses. And I’m probably not unlike yourself. I’m not into cutthroat small business. I’m not into simple transaction small business. I’m into the business of repeat sales and relationships and the idea that I’m here for more than your money but that I’m here for making you into a hero and sustaining your well-being.

Jonathan Fields: Right. So let’s deconstruct that a little bit because I really want to understand what Human Business Works is. But I want to come at it from a different angle, and I want to start with who it is that you’re trying to serve. So describe to me, who is this person who you’re reaching out to?

Chris Brogan: Sure. So we kind of have two and on one side it’s Janine. Janine would be this woman at home who has raised her kids, has decided to go back to the workplace, maybe is currently at a cubicle type job and has decided, “This isn’t really for me.” But she’s really good at catering and she’s decided she wants to do a catering business. She’s read E-Myth so she’s already been sufficiently terrified that the world is going to go poorly. And now she’s like, “Okay, I get it. I know it’s hard, but I don’t really know what to do next. And I would love to do it in sort of a modern way as opposed to what I’m getting out of my library, what I’m getting at at continuing ed courses that are being offered at my school. They are out there trying to teach Microsoft Office, and I’ve been told that I need a business on Facebook and whatever.”

So my job isn’t to just take what I know in marketing and social media and showing it in the small business. It’s to equip Janine with understanding of things like if she wants to work with a virtual assistant or not, what it’s like to work with virtual bookkeepers, for example, I use a virtual bookkeeping service. What does it mean to have presence all over the web for your sales outlet, and then how do you mix and match the local and the web stuff together? So Janine is one.

On the other side, I’m also working with some franchise organizations that have thousands of business owners that they’ve hired and they’re looking to equip them with some specific skills. For example, maybe specifically social media type stuff or specifically virtual collaboration tools and things like that. And so those are my two buyers basically are the single solo person who is really just trying to figure things out or somehow who’s had a small business going for a while and wants to take it up a level, and then on the other side maybe franchise owners who are looking to equip lots of people with useful training and information to kind of up their game.

Jonathan Fields: Right. So which is kind of interesting and it kind of evolves in this question of what are the big pain points for these people? I mean you shared some service, okay, this person is doing this but they’ve heard there are other ways to be doing it. They want to do something. And you and I both know that there are two sides to what you can do to build your own business. So for HBS you can try and delight people by giving them a better way to do things, but the better way to do it is really discover what are the big freaking pain points? Where are people really in need? So for these two people, for Janine and for the franchise person, what are they pain points that you’re reaching out to?

Chris Brogan: One of them for sure is how to understand what they know how to do in physical world into the online world. I’m just seeing that they’re not doing very well at converting their online prospects into sales because their website is like an old-fashioned billboard. And I’m finding that there are no conversational elements. There’s no kind of first sale then second sale. My concept of this is getting somebody to say yes to joining your email list is the first sale. That gives you the opportunity for the real transactional sale many times over versus people saying, “Just buy my thing right now.” Well, if right now isn’t the right time, then I’ve just lost you off my hook.

So I’m looking at those kinds of things as some of the main pain points. The other is people like Janine are just not sure where to advertise anymore. They receive calls from the local yellow pages and have been told that’s where to go, the local town newspaper, et cetera, and yet they don’t have even a basic website, they don’t have any information in Google Places, they’re not using the simplest of tools I think to get started. And so I’m really trying to help them with the pain of kind of rediscovering their web presence and not having to spend 5 to 10 grand a month with somebody who’s going to sell them an out of the box solution that doesn’t cost anything like that.

Jonathan Fields: Right. Which is kind of interesting because as you’re speaking I just took three quick notes and then remarkably all start with the letter C and it was conversion, confusion, and cost. And it seems like those are three things which are — I mean you and I both run a couple of small businesses. Those are big things that you don’t want to deal with confusion because it eats up your time, your energy and your money, your cost, your constantly concerned with your bottom line. And conversion, you’re always looking every single person walking through the door you’re trying to — and I love the way that you said that, that most people don’t realize. The first — the move onto your email list is the first sale if you want to call it that and then it’s the sale into a relationship which then turns into something bigger. So did that pretty accurately reflects the major pain points that you feel like you’re serving?

Chris Brogan: I think those are really good, Jonathan. What a great summary of them. And I would say that maybe if I had a fourth C, it might be content because a lot of people have been told that they need to create interesting stuff, they need to write interesting things, but they have no idea what that translates to. And so one of the businesses I rolled out for Human Business Works was called Blog Topics and it was simply for people who are blogging in whatever size of business or even for their personal blog for ideas and writing improvements and whatnot.

Jonathan Fields: Right. So let’s talk about that. That’s a great transition because then I want to move into how you’re solving the problems, and you just bought up one of them, Blog Topics. The Human Business Works is sort of this unusual — it feels like an umbrella organization for a bunch of individual solutions talking to individual people. So tell me more about what the existing solutions are and how they are maybe different than how — these two different people, Janine and the franchise people would normally find their solutions.

Chris Brogan: Sure. So the first two things we launched were educational forum type platforms. We launched one for non-profits called 501 Mission Place where we’re trying to help non-profits and charity organizations understand how better to use the tools of the web to do things like fundraise better, example. What we are also doing with that is showing them and giving them access to other executive directors. They can sort of share mind share and bringing in experts to maybe help them with sort of premium ideas of that nature.

The next one is Kitchen Table Companies which is a small business and entrepreneurial forum. Again, the idea being that come in, join, and learn, and we will just keep giving you information that’s useful at whatever point in the spectrum of small business you’re at. Again, we’re also going to start adding some intense sort of video content around educational opportunities like how to start a virtual assistant business, for example, that kind of a thing.

The Blog Topics is just an offering, an interesting education offering I’m giving right now, but that’s going to move into something where I’m offering a premium newsletter service that allows other people to create similar products for costs so that they can charge $2 an issue, $10 an issue, whatever they think they’re going to get for sending out information that they think is premium content and whatnot. So I started with a need of mine. I wanted to send out premium content that I could charge for and it evolved into the idea of creating a service that I thought other people might need. And because this all fits under the umbrella of tools and smarts for small business, that’s kind of how we keep doing it. And when I do something like this like make this email newsletter service, the idea is, “Hey, you possible small business owner, this is something that might augment and give you new revenue stream.”

Jonathan Fields: Right. And it’s kind of fascinating to me too because we both been involved in serving the small business for a long time, small business market. And one of the big challenges that I found is that a lot of the people who would most benefit from what you’re doing in particular are the people who are least likely to be searching for it online. So how do you work with that dynamic?

Chris Brogan: Not successfully, Jonathan. I will say I’m an utter failure right now at the converting offline people. So I’m trying some things. For example, the New England XPO is forthcoming and that’s a big offline physical conference event and I’m going to have two booths there. I have not had an exhibiting booth in years and years and years. I don’t — I mean in the days of squeezy balls I think was the last time I was at it. Now, it’s like win a free iPad or something.

So I’m going to hope to meet this plumbers and pipefitters, these people of the earth that are making stuff with their hands and whatnot and I really explain to them how that online to offline and back again world works for me and just offer whatever services I can. We’ll have some kind of show specials and all that. We’ll do all of the stuff that marketers do at booth events and plus I’m speaking and/or I will yet again have the ear of the people at the Boston Globe and some other places. So I’m just forever hoping that I can get that message to the right place because I’m horrendous at it yet getting the offline people to know I’m there.

Jonathan Fields: Yeah. And it’s a really huge challenge because you look at it — I mean and I’m sort of — have been exploring the same thing with what I do. And the other challenge I think with businesses is that they’re the most desperate, they’re the most in need of help. You’re somebody who can clearly help in many bazillion different ways, but they are also by far the most price-conscious. And every dollar out needs — they need to know that for every dollar that’s going out, they’re going to get a $1.05 and hopefully more back in. And especially when you’re sort of explaining the online world and it morphed and shaped to a lot of businesses they have trouble making that sort of progression in their minds.

I’m curious, have you come up with the same conversation? I’m sure you had many times over. And if so, what have you done to help turn the lights on? Are there major points where you just know you found that niche conversation and people say, “Wow! I never realized that”?

Chris Brogan: It’s a strange switch from really big companies to really small because you would think that really big companies are like, “Oh, we’ve got that money and it’s just lying on a floor somewhere. Let’s just get and shove one and get what you need right out.” But it’s not. I mean I had a conversation with a very large company that was very budget-conscious and I quoted them what I thought was a very small number for a project and they balked and I thought, “Wow! Clearly, it’s tough times for everybody.” So everyone is holding on to their dollars a little tighter.

I do try to show those return on investment kind of experiences especially for a small business because they do care so much about it. For example, in helping them build better websites and better web services, what I’d like to show them is that the small expense upfront of doing it on their own system, building a site that’s easily editable for them saves them a lot of money from having to pay for repeat visits from web developers, et cetera, and allows them a lot more manual control of it. So I try to show them that putting their hands into the work allows a little savings there.

The other thing I do a lot is talking about time savings and explaining how answering their question on the phone is so different than answering it on your site because the site can pick up when you’re sleeping, et cetera, et cetera. Google is indexing all that great information. I try to show them that there’s leverage points and that’s — you’ve interviewed Julien Smith before. Julien co-wrote Trust Agents with me. Leverage was the third big point we made which is, why answer something once when you could try to answer it a million times with one shot?

Jonathan Fields: Yeah. And it’s really fascinating too because I think one of the huge pain points for small business owners is they feel like they don’t have a life. The fortunate ones are the ones who figure it out over a period of years and start to get their lives back right off. But in the early days almost everybody gets completely consumed by the business that’s part of the long trust is as much as we like to go and say, “Hey, life balance, you can just create it at any point.” But it’s really hard to do when the business is new. So I would think that being able to convincingly argue that we can actually give you leverage points where you can get a substantial chunk of your life back. You’re not going to be sitting on a beach sipping piña coladas. But things will be better, would be pretty compelling argument for people.

Chris Brogan: Well, absolutely. The other thing I’d like to say is that it’s great that you’ve picked this physical location and it’s great that you may or may not have some kind of mail order going, but this just extends distribution points, and really one of the leverage that we look for in business is distribution and how do we get into more storage or whatever. Well, the web makes that a secondary thing. You can get into plenty more stores on the web. And I guess I’d like to show that with a smartphone or a decent lap top you can take this, carry on a conversation to other places, and you could be doing it on the airport on the way to Boca Raton for your vacation.

My daughter who is just about nine years old is complaining. She says, “Dad, you know, a lot of times I see you looking over and playing with your cell phone and I really wish you were spending time with me.” And I said, “Well, sweetheart, I’m home a lot more often than a lot of dads. And frankly, when I kind of look down and answer this device, it means I don’t have to be at a desk anymore to do it so I apologize and I’ll be — why don’t I shut it off for the whole rest of the night. But just understand that, that means daddy can bring his desk right here while we’re playing and we can sort of split time, and so that I’m holding many more hours than your typical dad even for a guy who travels all the time.

Jonathan Fields: Yeah, and which is — actually I love that you just said that because I need — I’m about to have — I’ve been trying to figure out how to have that same mode of conversation with my daughter who’s nine, and it’s a great way to sort of rephrase it and actually reframe it that way. So I love that. One of the things that you brought up when you’re describing the actual solutions was this idea of forums, and I know one of the big pain points for small business people also is the sense of isolation. They don’t have people to talk to. They don’t have people. And they’re always wondering, “Am I alone in this? Am I losing my mind? Am I doing things right or wrong? I’d love to bounce this off some way but I can’t pay a consultant.” It sounds like that’s part of what you’re creating in the solutions that you’re bringing out.

Chris Brogan: Absolutely. So Kitchen Table Companies is yet another way for us to make a forum for people to come and talk with peers as also with people who maybe have come a little further down the road than you. And I first had the idea when starting the Third Tribe Marketing with Brian Clark and Darren Rowse and I somewhat infamously got in trouble for writing a blog post about it because my point was you could pay $47 a month in this forum versus my day rate which is $22,000. Well, all anyone heard was Chris Brogan charges $22,000 bucks a day.

Jonathan Fields: Yeah, I remember that.

Chris Brogan: They didn’t even in any way look at like what I was saying and I was like — I was so proud of myself. I was like, “This is great. It’s 1/122 of the cost of whatever I said, but then I had arguments about how much I charge and how that’s crazy. I do charge $22,000 a day and I do it for an important reason. My days are very valuable to me and if you think — you need a day of my time then I’m going to charge what it’s worth for a day of my time. However, for $47 bucks you get an entire month of my time and you get a month of hundreds and hundreds of people who are small business professionals who are looking to connect.

So I think that’s an amazing pitch but it’s forever stunningly on deaf ears because they get stuck on the wrong part. But, Jonathan, like you said, so many people are just out there feeling like they’re by themselves. I mean yesterday, my COO was sitting here in my office with me yesterday and I just got hit with this feeling of, “Oh, my gosh! I’m doing this so wrong,” and I don’t know who to go to. So I mean to me I just go back into the forums and ask, “Has anyone ever had that realization that you’re spending way too much money and making way too little?” It’s the same for me.

Jonathan Fields: Yeah. And I mean I think it’s just invaluable part of what you’re doing and I think there’s also an interesting element to — because people always ask, “Well, there’s got to be a bunch of forums out there. I could just go to online for all sorts of different things.” So what’s the difference and what’s — and maybe it was Seth Godin when he started really talking about Tribes company years back said that a sense of exclusivity, that privacy actually changes the dynamic.

It changes the conversation. It changes the trust dynamic within — when it’s gated even if it’s — I mean honestly like the very solutions you brought forth whether it’s part of Human Business Works or they’re a tribe, to me as a business owner, the cost is ridiculously low. But the point being that it’s really — it’s a token. What you’re saying is I’m willing to put a tiny bit of money to get into behind a gated community where there are real conversations and there is respect and privacy and intelligence.

Chris Brogan: That’s it. I mean one of the reasons to charge is for people to contribute and to participate. One of them is to cover our server costs and all the other things that we’re doing. The other is that we go where the money and we go where we’re devoting our time. And so to ask for just a small amount of money out of several hundred people is affordable to me. First is getting on a plane flying somewhere charging some one group 22,000 bucks. You mean this is a way that I could spread it out a lot more.

And I say that as if Kitchen Table Companies is led by me. Joe Sorge is really the guts and heart behind it. He has funded many different restaurants. He’s been an entrepreneur one kind or another for over 20 years now. And Joe lives in Milwaukee and owns several restaurants and just recently merged into a deal where he acquired even more restaurants. And so he is in the startup phases of two new restaurants right now as he’s writing all this stuff, and so Joe makes the forum much worthwhile. And me showing up every now and again is just a little bit of sprinkle on the cake.

Jonathan Fields: So tell me, you mentioned one of the things that’s been a really big challenge for me that wasn’t working to a certain extent. So you’re trying all sorts of different things. What’s really working phenomenally with what you’re doing right now?

Chris Brogan: Oh, wow, that’s a great question. I would say there’s a few things. I mean Blog Topics is working better than I ever imagined. I was amazed that so many people wanted it and that so many people keep replying that they’re finding value in it. And I’m very humbled by this because people — like the response when I launched it was, “Oh, my gosh! He’s $10 a month for ideas on how to read blogs? What a jerk. I can’t believe he’s doing this.” And blog posts flew and angry tweets flew and more people complained and more people signed up and I’m just — I’m getting so close to 500 buyers right now and I’m thrilled. And let’s just do math here, 500 buyers at 10 bucks a month, that’s 5 grand a month for one weekly email where I pour my heart and my writing abilities into it and trying to help educate other people to write.

On my side I think it’s equitable. On the other side people are paying 10 bucks for 40 plus ideas a month. It seems like a match made in heaven. So that works well. What else is going well is we’ve started buying and building some software and we started coming up with some things that would be useful to people. We built a web — a simple website creation methodology that uses WordPress as kind of the engine of it but it has small business people in mind. And so we build a kit that helps with that. That will launch soon. The newsletter thing is going to work really well.

You catch me in an interesting time because the forums are interesting and they’re working well, but what I wanted to do is I wanted to have tools and smarts for small businesses. And so my tools have not come out to the public yet but I’m getting to play with them and I’m excited because I just think that it’s going to help with conversion and confusion, cost and content.

Jonathan Fields: Very cool. I like that. So let’s zoom the lens out a little bit now, and I know we just have a couple of minutes left. So I want to ask some bigger pictures of it. I know you’re a big fan of Donald Miller’s sort of whole approach of framing your life as a story. A big question for you, what story do you feel like you’re telling right now?

Chris Brogan: Wow! I am telling the story of someone who at least externally seems successful in all that he’s done with his business for the last couple of years and who has the eye and the attention of a bunch of people in at least one marketplace, the social media space. And I’m saying that it’s not good enough. I’m saying that working with really large companies wasn’t good enough for me and as much as I really love big companies, I will see one again on Monday afternoon. There’s not the same sense of satisfaction as helping the Janine that I mentioned earlier as this mom who is coming back to the workplace for an example, to find her own spark and to really — and really nurture that and make that grow.

So hopefully my story is the story of promoting other people, growing other people’s capabilities, and really equipping them with the tools to take on their destiny. I don’t need to be the hero anymore. I really just need to be the mentor that helps rise up a good lot of people.

Jonathan Fields: Right. I love that. And it kind of segues really well into the last thing I’ll throw at you which is that we’re both dads, we’re both entrepreneurs, we both work, and our kids see we’re around a lot and we both know that what you do has so much bigger impact than what you said just like when we were kids. In your mind, what are the big lessons that you’re hoping you’re passing down to your kids in your actions as this?

Chris Brogan: You know, that’s a huge thing for me because neither my wife nor I were very traditional students. She was a lot better student according to the paper and I was a lot more precocious. So I really had to teach my daughter from an early age. I mean she learned sooner than me that she kind of had more control than you’re supposed to and I think that — I’ve had a teacher that were clever — where she has to kind of throttle her clever so that she can actually learn the lesson and basically learn classical before you play jazz. And I would say that — I mean neither of my kids is going to have a traditional work experience. I have no doubt at this. My daughter runs the risk of it but I think she’s too precocious and impetuous. And I think my son, he’s got that sort of crazy Einstein mind. He’s ultra smart but forgets to wear his pants. So neither one is destined to be a cubicle farmer as near as I can tell.

Jonathan Fields: God! I love that. And which kind of like just circles me back to — okay, last question for real here. When I start talking about parents and dads and stuff like that I confer but — which brings curiosity to me because it’s kind of a question that I ask on a pretty daily basis which is what takes your breath away these days?

Chris Brogan: Wow! Besides a good punch to the belly which nearly nine-year-old daughters always wanted to give, I would say that honestly it’s just that feeling of somebody saying, “I really didn’t believe that I could do this and I did it.” And I don’t know. I could never grow tired of having people tell me that story. Whether or not it had anything to do with me I’m forever thrilled that they’ve told me that story and shared it with me. So I’m always thrilled when somebody says that they’ve accomplished something they just didn’t think was going to happen to t hem.

Jonathan Fields: That — love that. All right. This has been — I mean I love learning about what you’re up to. I also love — for me it’s been really helpful because I have a deeper understanding of what Human Business Works is right now and where I think it’s going. I’m sure people want to know more. How can people find you or Human Business Works throughout the —

Chris Brogan: My designer, Josh Fisher, did an amazing job of reskinning, so come by and look at its orange beauty and see if there’s something good there.

Jonathan Fields: Cool. Awesome. Thanks so much, Chris. I appreciate it.

Chris Brogan: Jonathan, my pleasure. Thank you.

——————–END TRANSCRIPT——————-


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7 responses

7 responses to “Getting Real: Chris Brogan On Making Human Business Work”

  1. Really enjoyed this interview. I’ve also struggled at that interface of online / offline and tried a few techniques to explain the benefits of online marketing.

    Chris’s new venture sounds great, look forward to reading more.


  2. I work in health care getting those folks online. Talk about a tough group to pull online. The pain points are – getting clients/customers through the door and making more money. Work-life balance is a distant third.

    Tell them how KTC gets me clients and makes them money.

  3. Nice job, men. Love it. Offline to Online is a necessary transition, but tricky to navigate with the ones that need it most!

    Appreciate how forward thinking and client-centric you both are. Refreshing in a ‘marketing’ world, for sure 😉


  4. We all could use the advice and wisdom of Chris Brogan to enhance our businesses.

    He has a lot of knowledge that I would find particularly useful.

  5. Ed Lichtig says:

    Good Job! Good luck on the new venture! Chris Brogan really knows his stuff. I have to watch out for more of his tutorials.

  6. […] share a few interviews I’ve seen recently. In this instance, it’s an intervew with Chris Brogan, founder of Human Business Works. Hang in there through the whole conersation – it’s a […]

  7. […] share a few interviews I’ve seen recently. In this instance, it’s an intervew with Chris Brogan, founder of Human Business Works. Hang in there through the whole conersation – it’s a […]