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Friday, March 23, 2009

For people up and down the business spectrum, from tiny home based enterprises to Wall Street darlings, there seems to be a surplus of bad days so far in 2009. To prevent those pesky 24-hour negative episodes from rolling up to be a truly bad year, I practice something I call “smart days,” which gives me hope for the future.

In these crazy times we all yearn for smart insights and advice. What I call “smart days” is simply when I call someone who is smarter than me on a particular subject or aspect of business. I simply ask for 30 minutes of their time to ask questions and take notes. The practice started for me about 5 years ago when I met the legendary Art Linkletter at an advertising business event in Beverly Hills. He’d been one of my media idols since watching him host “People Are Funny” and “House Party.” In conversation and through his books I learned that he was a true entrepreneur, very successful and wonderfully insightful. He asked me how passionate I was about my mission of spreading the entrepreneurial spirit and told me to find something to smile or laugh about every day. When we parted after a brief chat I was smiling, grateful for the smart advice from a man I’d greatly admired. As of this writing, Linkletter is 96 years old and still functioning pretty well after a stroke last year.

A couple of events on my schedule for this past Monday earned it the designation as a smart day. At 12:30 I met in downtown Los Angeles with John Hope Bryant, the founder and Chairman of Operation Hope (www.operationhope.org.), a not-for-profit organization devoted to economic literacy. Why? We have launched The Making It Institute for the Advancement of Business, and I wanted advice from a person who’d built a not-for-profit from nothing to a $15 million annual budget. No matter what I read or look up on the Internet, nothing is as valuable as learning from someone who has accomplished something of substance and done it smartly.

At 4:30 that day, I was at The Milken Institute for a meeting followed by a symposium featuring Lynda Resnick. Michael Milken, who first gained fame as a bond trader, founded the institute and I like their mission. It is to improve the lives and economic conditions of diverse populations in the United States and around the world by helping business and public-policy leaders identify and implement innovative ideas for creating broad-based prosperity. In the halls of business and finance, Michael Milken is still revered and seen with awe for his abilities with numbers and to be able to simplify complex situations. The Milken Institute Global conference truly does bring together some of the smartest and most extraordinary people in the world.

Lynda Resnick is a something of a savant when it comes to marketing and you can get a taste of her smarts in the new book on branding that she co-authored (with Francis Wilkinson), Rubies in the Orchard. She and her husband, Stewart, have built very significant businesses that you may have heard of including Pom Wonderful, Fiji Water, and Teleflora. Also, The Franklin Mint was in their portfolio for a while. In her role as President of Teleflora, Resnick introduced "Flowers in a Gift," which earned her a gold Effie award.

So in one day I was fortunate enough to hit the jackpot for having these people pour their smartness over me. I recommend smart days for anyone who wants to expand their horizons and mix some positive rays of light with the daily pounding of negative information that popular media delivers to each of us. Seeking out the company of other business owners is a favorite pastime with me, especially these days. While a bit of conversation deals with the fears and challenges of the downturn, they usually move quickly to talk about opportunities and how they plan to take advantage of this phase: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful,” according to Warren Buffett.

So what does Lynda Resnick consider the smart way to think and behave in business these days? Well, she talked about having lived through many recessions; and also endured an industry with shrinking demand. Resnick said that the recent good times have gone on for so long that many of us have gotten away from the basics, “If you are under 40 this is a revelation. Well embrace it for the near future it is your life.”  She also feels that Americans are getting past the obsession to consume instead of producing. Another of her observations is that people are starving for true value and that hard work is making a return. She got a chuckle from me when she said that too many people graduating from college these days expect success to be handed to them like a happy meal.

Michael Milken is a wonderful at summarizing thoughts into easily digested phrases. This isn’t a word for word quote, but I recall the intent of one of his summaries. Michael said that we all tend to want to have formulas and scientific principles to lead us on a successful path. But according to Milken to do anything at a very high level is an art, which often defies formulas.

On those too frequent days when you feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill, I recommend you think on how to construct your very own smart days. You may be surprised to find that people of immense accomplishment who you admire are willing to give you some of their time to help you become smarter about something. Art Linkletter, Lynda Resnick, and Michael Milken are worth hundreds of millions but continue to make themselves available to share their thinking and offer advice. People like John Hope Bryant travel thousands of miles per year to teach and preach according to their missions.

One of the smartest pieces of advice for small business owners came from my friend and author, Jane Applegate ("201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business"), who said; “never be afraid to ask for help, you may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the advice you get.” These are indeed challenging times and just circling your own wagons may not be enough. A wagon load of smart thinking from someone else may be what is needed.


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