Chuck Blakeman is a Best-Selling Business Author and World-Renowned Business Advisor who has built ten businesses in seven industries on three continents, and now uses his leadership experience to advise others. His company, Crankset Group, provides outcome-based mentoring and peer advisory for business leaders worldwide in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Chuck sold one of his businesses to the largest consumer fulfillment company in America and led three other $10-$100 million companies through repositioning in the Marketing Support Services industry. He presently leads the Crankset Group and a for-profit business based in Africa, focused on developing local economies to solve poverty.
Mr. Blakeman is a results leader, and has decades of sales, marketing and operations experience leading companies in marketing, import/export, fulfillment, call centers, website development, printing and direct mail processing.
He is a convention speaker, writer, and non-profit board member. His first book, “Making Money is Killing Your Business”, was named #1 Business Book of the Year by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), the largest business owner association in America. His newest book, "Why Employees are ALWAYS a Bad Idea", has already been named a Top Ten Business Book of the Year and is required reading at the University of Georgia’s MBA Program.
Recent speaking appearances include Kenya, DR Congo, Ireland, New Zealand, and across the US. 100+ times a year. Recent print and online appearances include Inc. Magazine (regular contributor), Success Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, CNNMoney.com, NYTimes.com. He was recently cited in Dr. Stephen Covey's recent book, "The 3rd Alternative".
Shantel: Hi, Chuck. Welcome to the Imagine More Podcast.
Chuck: Hi, Shantel. It's great to be with you guys.
Shantel: Yeah, we are excited to learn more about your journey in entrepreneurship, and what's keeping you busy now, and try to soak up any wisdom that we can. But if we can start and kick things off with telling the listeners a little bit more about you. And know you're a serial entrepreneur, so I won't ask you what is it ... I don't know how do you put that in a nutshell, but let's try to start with that. If you can, tell everyone a little bit more about you and what you have going on right now.
| "I'M NOT SMART. I'M JUST RELENTLESS." |
Chuck: You bet. Yeah. I'm kind of an odd duck. I'm ADHD, left-handed, right-brained. Went to music school, not business school. I graduated at the bottom of my class in high school. They actually had me in Principal's office the last day, deciding whether they would let me graduate. That's how bad it was. I think they kicked me out, 'cause they realized they'd have me for another year if they kept me, so they said, "Why don't we let him go?” Coming out of high school, they didn't identify any of that stuff back then. That's probably good, 'cause then I'd have just made myself into a victim. But school completely escaped me, didn't understand it at all. I joined the Army, because I knew that with a high school degree, I was pretty convinced there was nobody else in the world, a factory, nobody would hire me. The Army had to take me, because I had a high school degree. That’s really how I got started. In the Army, I started a little business, and it seemed to work. I thought maybe I had a knack for this stuff. Spent six years in the Army. Re-enlisted once and kept going. Got out of the Army and kept going. Probably the age of 35 or so, I figured out I had something to offer the world. By the age of 45, I was making it work. So you wanna talk about a late bloomer. I was in my 50s before I really felt like I began to hit my stride. Over the course of those years, I built 11 businesses on 8 continents in 4 industries. I've written two books. One that was a number one bestselling book in 2010, and a top 10 book in 2014. I've got a few others on the way. With all that behind me, I learned that my number one strength was, I'm not smart. I'm just relentless.
Shantel: Well, I love that. I have, already, so many questions. The first one is, I would love for you to elaborate on the business in the Army. That sounds innovative.
Chuck: Oh, yeah. I think in the Army, when you're 22 or 23 years old or something ... I think I started a leadership development consulting business while I was in the Army, which I look back on it, and I think, "Well, I wonder how many people I wrecked with that?" I knew a lot more when I was 22 than I do now at 60 plus. I think I probably knew half of what I needed to know when I'm 20, and now I probably know 5%. I guess by the time I'm 90, I'll know 2%. The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know, if you're doing this right. That was my first business. Then I did a landscape architecture thing, and I did digital media later on. We did a call center, a direct mail company, a logistics company, import/export, a fulfillment company. We did a branding company that was the ... In 2006, we won the branding company of the year award, with Sun Microsystems. Or the marketing company of the year award with them, internationally. So I've been all over the map. Basically, my life has been formed around one question I got from a book, from a guy who died in 1954. This was his question for his life, and it became mine. "Why do what others can and will do when there's so much to be done that others can't or won't?" So that's the entrepreneurs view of the world is where's the thing that's not being done well enough or not at all? For me, it was a combination of either that's not being done well or not at all, or someone told me I couldn't do it. For the most part, every single thing I got myself involved in was something I knew nothing about when I went into it. What was so weird, I've learned 30 plus years later, 95% of businesses are started by people who have a fairly deep understanding of that industry before they go into that business. In every single one of them I was pretty clueless, with maybe one exception.
Shantel: I'm glad that you just led into that, and that quote is perfection.
Chuck: Nah, nah. It's a gap filler view of the world.
Shantel: And also, it seems like you saw an opportunity in all of these. Of the 11 businesses, there was an underserved market or a niche that someone could be doing better. Which is also how I got my start, so I think that's interesting. We can go there, too, but I was gonna ask about the four different industries 'cause I think people tend to wanna lead in that comfort zone of, "Oh, I know this, so I'll start with that." So I think that's really interesting that you didn't.
Chuck: It was actually eight different industries on four continents. None of that was on purpose. It sounds really glamorous and intentional. I fell into a lot of this stuff from ... A-mar Bi-dee at Harvard says, "97% of businesses leave their prime objective in order to be successful." From my experience, I looked at that and said, "That seems low. Only 97%?" So I followed my way around and just went from one thing to the next as I saw other opportunities, other challenges. Things that weren't being done the way I thought they could be done. So I did get into things as broadly as landscaping, to programming. We programmed stuff for companies like Microsoft in the 1990s because they couldn't figure out how to do it. 20 years before that, I'm digging holes and planting bushes. We grew a call center from 8 people to 300 people. We took a small printing company that we bought. It was a $1 million printing and direct mail company that had been losing money for 11 years straight. Three years later, we had it at $9 million. What else did I do? Logistics. I did import/export. I've done a lot of import/export, but my major one was leather luggage from Columbia during the height of the drug cartels, which was an interesting thing. We had a lot of shredded luggage that came through customs that, you know, they just cut it up to see if there were drugs in there. So it was really across the board. I did website development for a little bit. ADHD thing coming out. As soon as I figured something out, I got bored. Then it would either start to fall apart, or I'd sell it, or I'd just go into something else and it would just gradually go away. It's really been in 2006, my best friend in the world lives in Belfast, Ireland. I met him while I was speaking in the logistics and fulfillment industry, and he runs a very successful company in Belfast. He challenged me in 2006 to help other business owners figure out how to do this stuff. Specifically, how to start and grow a business, and then how to organize differently than the traditional factory system, top down hierarchy. He said, "You're doing something crazy that people need to know more about." I wasn't interested, and he said, "Well, I know some people in Virginia. We can meet halfway.", and I'm not so interested. He said, "Well, there's wine involved." So I left and I went, and I caught the bug there. That has gripped me, and I don't see ever not doing that because it's like starting a new business every time I get involved in somebody else's business. I learn all over again, so I don't have to start my own. I'm addicted to helping other people start, build, and grow their own. So we're working with people everywhere from people who have two or three people and starting out, to companies with 1300 or more people in them.
Shantel: Great. I was gonna ask about the 11 businesses. You alluded to some were sold, and some just dissolved. Did you have to have some pretty tough conversations with some teams that you were like, "Hey, I'm bored of this. I'm moving on to the next thing, and you don't have a job anymore."
Chuck: No, I never had to have that conversation because, in most cases, they simply dissolved. I always took care of the people, and, in most cases, I was able to ... In some cases, I didn't even sell the thing, even though I could have. I just gave it to a friend and said, "Here, you take this and run with it. I'm off to the new thing. It's not worth that much money, anyway, and it'll just be distracting to me. It'll make it harder for you to get this moving.” Well, I had to have it once with a team, but, even then, we made it work out well. Then, typical of how this stuff works, if you work with, they basically buy businesses in lots of 10 because one of those 10 is gonna be a home run and fund the others. I had one business that we sold to the largest company in our industry, in the logistics industry, so that was my home run to me early on. Now, I'm involved in what I think are a couple home runs, which will be well 1/2 billion dollars, if not a billion dollars in business, when we're done. We have figured out how to help small business owners with something we call 3to5 Clubs. Then how to help small to medium size companies re-humanize the workplace, and give everybody their brain back, and get through that idea of getting away from the industrial age factory system, top down hierarchy. So we're really excited about that, and that has so much legs I learn something new every day. I've got six other books in my head. We've already done 60 plus videos, and we've got another 60 or so. We're gonna build online stuff to basically help people get out of the factory system, which most businesses are still in.
Shantel: You are a busy, busy man, Chuck. It also sounds like you're risk averse. I mean, when you're starting something else, you're not at all afraid to just stop that steady stream of income from something else.
| MEASURED RISK |
Chuck: It's interesting, Shantel. I'm actually a measured risk guy. With rare exception, I'm not jumped out of the airplane and sewn the parachute on the way down, which a lot of entrepreneurs do. I'm more of a measured risk guy. If I can see clearly that this could work, then I'll let the other thing fade. And even there, in many cases, I didn't just cut it off and go cold turkey. In many cases, like with our branding company, we got this huge award from Sun Microsystems, and six months later I'm starting this business advisory thing to help other business owners. Instead of just cutting that off, I just made a deal with my friend who owned a branding business. "I'm just gonna send you all my clients as they come up, and you're gonna give me a referral fee. And I anticipate, within 12 to 18 months, I'm not gonna be getting any money out of this anymore." So it gradually went away, I built the other one up. So I've been a measured risk guy, for the most part. I've done a couple crazy things. We threw hundreds of thousands of dollars at starting the businesses, particularly, in the D.R. Congo to solve poverty through for-profit capitalism. That has failed miserably, largely because of the political landscape over there. And I've got maybe one other that I've thrown some money at. But in most cases, I talk about growing into business rather than going into business. So we test out something pretty thoroughly before we throw money at it. I'm not against doing it the other way, it's just it's not my style, particularly. A lot of venture capitalists will go into business. They'll throw a few million dollars in an idea to see if it works. I'm gonna throw $50 at an idea, maybe $5000, and if it organically can grow without money, then we can throw money at it to make it grow faster.
Shantel: Yeah. A lot of our listeners are either starting companies or have been in business a few years. I imagine, still, the small startup days, so it's good to hear that testing beforehand to really validate the idea. And you touched on earlier, your top strength is resilience. Do you think that particular quality is super important in starting a company?
Chuck: We call it being relentless because relentless has a forward movement to it. So relentless has implied in it that you're moving forward and there's all kinds of stuff in your way, and you're just knocking in down as you go. That's relentless, and I believe that is the number one character attribute of the successful business person or entrepreneur is that they just never give up. Last man standing. Be relentless. One of my favorite movies is The Founder. Not because I like Ray Kroc. I think Ray Kroc was really kind of an icky human being in a lot of ways. Or at least the way he acted. I don't know what his personal life, but reading about him, and watching the movies, and knowing about him, I wouldn't. But Ray Kroc had one attribute that made him relentless against all the other things that made him not so successful. He was relentless. I mean, the dude was absolutely relentless. He wasn't that smart. I mean, for 15 years he sold paper cups. Then, for a few years, he sold ironing boards. Then, for 15 more years, he sold milkshake mixers. Nobody makes a 35 year career out of that stuff who is a flaming genius. But what he did was he ran into some guys who were geniuses, who were incredibly innovative. They invented fast food. They invented McDonald's, the arches, the whole thing. They had five locations up and running. He ran into these guys, both of them were in their 50s, and the two McDonald's brothers were getting tired and quitting. Ray said, "Hey, I'll sell this thing." So he picked up on all the things they did, and went out, and he was relentless. And guess who won? Sure.
Shantel: That's great. I would love to talk about the 3to5 Club. But then I would like to get into the books because I think the titles are super interesting. Can you elaborate on the 3to5 Clubs?
Chuck: Yeah. We've got three initiatives going at once. I do a lot of speaking, and workshops, and retreats, and leadership retreats, and coaching with CEOs and their teams. Then we have this thing called 3to5 Club because someone said to me once, about 12 years ago, "You can't help small business owners." I said, "Why?" They said, "Because they need it the most, but they have the least amount of money.” I'd seen that over decades that people who lost their jobs declared themselves to be small business coaches because no one else would take them. Then when they finally got a mid-level company to buy them, they disappeared from the small business landscape. So they really weren't committed to it. It was just, "I gotta live here until I can get a real job." I'd seen that happen over, and over, and over again. I thought, "Okay, let's solve this problem." So we invested three years in figuring out how do we help small business owners in a way that would be incredibly transformative and impactful for them and their businesses, and do it in a way that they could afford it. We came up with 3to5 Clubs. It's a business advisory organization. We put 24 business owners in a room twice a month. We got a two year syllabus that we run them through, based on my first book, Making Money Is Killing Your Business. They get to know each other, and they work with each other, and they become a community for each other. I run, personally, four of those groups. We've got, I don't know, probably a dozen of them here in Denver, and they're spreading around the world. We've got them in Europe, and in Africa. We've only got, maybe, six or eight locations here in the US. We moved very slowly to begin with because one of the other things I'd seen is that franchises ... This isn't really a franchise. People own their own 3to5 Clubs, but we do it a different way. But we just wanted to make sure that we got this thing vetted before we threw it out there. So this year we're beginning to focus on building them, and we've got 3to5 Clubs starting in Atlanta, I think where you are. Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and Utah. So it's pretty exciting to see it begin to grow. Our vision for that is that we will have 3to5 Clubs in every city in the world with 50,000 or more people. We are going to be the McDonald's of peer advisory, and we're gonna help transform economies and small business around the world. Every healthy economy in the world, 90% plus of the businesses in a healthy economy have fewer than 20 people in them. And they're the ones not getting help, so we're really excited about that thing.
Shantel: That's great. Are there certain metrics for the 24 business owners? Either that they're shooting for, or to get into the club?
Chuck: No. No, that's one of the things. There's no entry level like with Vistage, and a, all these other groups you gotta have $5 million revenues, and all that other stuff. Nope. The one thing you have to do is want to make more money in less time, and figure out how to build a real business. So if you wanna work out of your trunk and be a hobbyist, and what we call an income producer where the business will always depend on me, and I will never figure out how to get myself disentangled from, at least, in some way. That person will not be even ... We'll take them, but we're gonna into a business owner, and they will be uncomfortable because, the whole time, we're gonna be harassing them to figure out, "How do you make money when you are not there?" That's the premise of 3to5 Club is let's make more money in less time. The only way to do that is figure out how to build business, not an income. So that's the qualification. If you're excited about building a business, whether there's 3 of you or 300 of you, you have to be willing and able to get yourself off the hot seat and figure out how to make money when you're not there.
Shantel: a bunch of ... The concept of.
Chuck: Yeah. In fact, I've been compared to that thing a lot. The difference is that, God bless him, I love what he came up with. Revolutionary, work on your business, not in it. The first half of the book is genius. The second half, I would've written the same book. I don't wanna throw stones. He wrote this in like 1985, at the end of the industrial age, and his solutions were industrial age solutions. And I've checked with lots and lots of people, and, unless you hire his consultants, nobody does that stuff. Everything we teach in this book are things that I've been doing for the last 25 years to build a business. The 4 building blocks, and the 7 stages of business ownership, and the 11 tools we've got. We use them all to this day, and everybody ... I was afraid of writing the book 'cause I wondered if people could do this, and I get comments from all over the world, "Your book has transformed my life and my business." We do this stuff. This stuff is actually doable, practical, and that's really what we wanted was something that we wouldn't even have to consult on. That people could pick up the book and figure out how to run a business, and do it from a practical standpoint. So we didn't sit in an ivory tower and try to figure out what can we sell on the internet that would be cool, that people think would make for a business. We bled over this stuff for decades. That's why I say regularly, "This is not a book I wrote, this is a life I lived.” Yeah, I think the premise is ... I didn't even know about the e-myth when I wrote the book, frankly. But the premise is a really good idea. Let's figure out how to work on our businesses, not in it. Absolutely genius, simple way of looking at it. Then we can give you the tools on how to do that.
Shantel: Yeah. I'll have to check out. I'm interested in the club. I'm in the entrepreneur's organization right now. I think it's a great group, but there's not the focus of ... I love the intentionality of thinking, "Okay, how can you be making more money without me? Or the business?" So I'm excited to check that out. Moving on to the book, because I think the title I super fascinating. I'm sure a lot of the listeners, when they hear Making Money Is Killing Your Business there may be some tension there. Like what the heck does that mean? So can you dive into that, and some of the thoughts that will give away the entire--
| THE BIG WHY |
Chuck: Yeah, you bet. It's kind of logical. what I do is not intuitive. It's not. It's a varied intuitive, but it is kind of logical. And the logical thing is that you went in the business to make money. That is an industrial age factory system concept. We call it industrialism. Capitalism actually adds value to the world around you, and money is just a measure of how much value you've added. Robert Herjavec says, "Don't go into business to make money. Go into business to solve a problem." Our mantra on this is that people who go into business, including myself ... I went there to begin with. People who go into business to make money rarely make a lot of it. People who go into business to do something bigger than make money are much more likely to make a lot of it. So when we talk about making meaning, not just money, let's do something in the world that is transformational. Steve Jobs says, "I did not have a vision of being the richest man in the cemetery. I got up every morning thinking, 'What cool technology could we make next that would be transformative in the world around us?'" That's the kind of passion that we have to have. So we have to get people oriented toward that, and we, specifically, get them involved in something bigger than their business. One of the chapters in my book is about what we call the big why. Your lifetime goals. The stuff that is bigger than your business, that you will use your business personally. What do you want out of life? What's your obituary look like? What's your legacy look like? Let's build a business that will get you that. And that's the big why stuff. When people have a big why, some people have a business big why like, "I wanna build cool technology." People who have a personal big why, "I wanna be transformative in this way in the world around me, and I'll build cool technology to get that done." That's the magic combination, is those two things together.
Shantel: So then, making meaning. Going back to that, and thinking about one of your first companies as landscape architect. How did you infuse meaning? I guess, did you apply that into your mission statement, and how you--
Chuck: Yeah. Back then, Shantel, I was winging it. Right then, it was attractive to make money. Somebody approached me. I'd actually built a house, and I had landscaped it myself. Built it myself, landscaped it myself 'cause I didn't have the money to have somebody else build it. It's a nice 2000 square foot house on 3/4 of an acre in Connecticut. Somebody actually knocked on my door and said, "Who landscaped this place?" 'Cause it was a sloped environment. Just a beautiful place to landscape. I said, "I did." He said, "Well, I'm building 80 houses in Simsbury, Connecticut. Would you like to landscape those for me?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Well, show up Friday with a plan on how you'd landscape a 1/2 acre lot." So I went to the library and found out how you draw that stuff so that it looks like you know what you're doing. Boom, I was in business. So, in that case, that was a good example of where I was probably more focused on making money, but it was exciting. It was creative, innovative. But even in that environment, my desire was, "Hey, wouldn't this be cool if I could hire a bunch of college kids who are starving to death, and give them meaningful employment, and invite them in to be Capitalists as part of this thing. And as we finished up well and on time, or in front of the curve, that you'll get more money out of this.” So there was meaning in it, but it really wasn't probably until my sixth business that I really began to articulate the need to say, "What am I doing this for?" So my lifetime goal became, "Live well by doing good." And that sounds like a bunch of woo-woo crap, but I can unpack that for three or four Guinesses for anybody who wants to. And how we have helped millions of people around the world live well, themselves, by doing good in their lives. When we talk about doing good, it's specifically teaching business owners to stop being hostages to their business.
Shantel: I like that you kind of leveled and said initially it wasn't like that, but there's still hope. Or there still could be meaning in every business, and I'm thinking about my own business. I started it because I saw an opportunity, and there was an underserved market. I hoped on it, and I didn't necessarily lead with the change in what I'm doing, or the change in around me. But it's nice to know that I can certainly learn some things in that book of how I can still instill meaning for the team, and what we're doing every day outside of the financial results.
Chuck: Yeah. I wanna make sure everybody understands, you don't have to be in some kind of altruistic career. A friend of mine read my book and we talked, and he was a mortgage broker. Not exactly a romantic, exotic career path. He'd been doing it for 20 years, and he was successful. Then he got his big why. He got in touch with the stuff that was always inside of him, that he said, "This is what I'm gonna do with my life.” His big why was basically, "Hey, what really makes me tick is that I wanna help people get from where they are to where they need to be.", he says, "That just floats my boat." And that became his big why. He re-engineered his whole company around that, and his whole life around that, and now he owns five assisted living centers. He knew nothing about assisted living, but he ran into somebody where they knew a lot about this stuff, didn't have the capital to start it. He got them started, and got into this assisted living stuff, and it's a huge gas for him. He's helping everybody, including the people who are patients in is clinics. Everybody he touches, he's helping them get from where they are to where they need to be. He even took a Labrador ... I'm not kidding. He took a Labrador retriever from another assisted living center that had wood floors because it was too old and it couldn't stand up on the floors, and he had carpet. So he took the dog from where he was to where he needed to be. His whole life was transformed about that. By the way, he made millions when, before, he was making hundreds of thousands.
Shantel: That's a great example. Just while we have you for the last couple minutes, I'm curious, because you have so many projects, and so many moving parts. Do you outsource as much as you can? Or are there ... I guess I'll lead with that question.
Chuck: Yeah. No, absolutely. We wanna stick to our knitting, so we outsource. Let's be good at what we're good at. We talk about it, and we do this with clients. "What is the highest and best use of your time?" Every individual in our organization should be asking that. And if we can shuffle things around so that it gets onto somebody else's plate, that's their highest and best use, great. If it's nobody's highest and best use, then the highest and best use for it is to find somebody else who would love to do it. So let's not do fill-in-the-blank thing that we're not good at. Let's get somebody who does that for a living, and outsource that. So I'm a huge fan of just getting things where they need to be, and, as a result, a lot of the things that companies would keep in-house and be very inefficient at, we send to somebody who loves doing it, instead.
Shantel: What are your thoughts on, in a service business, the business owner being the primary sales person? You think that--
Chuck: Yeah, absolutely. That's, a lot of times, their best role. It's not being the chair maker, but it's the person selling the chairs. Or it's the service provider. Because they're the most passionate about they're going to get in the door quicker, so that's a good use of their time and energy. That could be a highest and best use, but it really depends on what energizes you. We have friends who run the Strengths Finder. We love that one. I'm sorry, Strengthscope, not Strengths Finder. And Strengthscope is one that says, "Here's what your strength is, and here's what energizes you." One of my five major strengths doesn't energize me at all. I'm just really good at it, and people want me to do it all the time. So that's the important thing, is for every one of us to figure out what energizes us. For one guy, it might be to make the chairs and have somebody else sell them. But, to your point, more often than not, I see a lot of value in people being the sales person. We teach business owners who don't like to sell, we teach them how to actually use that to ... It's one of the things we do is help them figure out how to sell without being sales people. 'Cause sales people don't make the best sales people. It's that quiet personality who doesn't wanna light up a room, a lot of times is the best guy. A lot of entrepreneurs don't think they're good at this, and they're fantastic at it.
Shantel: And, I guess, in that 3to5 Club, how to make those people that hire the sales people and the owners not have to be present always to be winning that, I imagine, a challenge?
Chuck: That's it. That's right. We call it The Business Owner's Game. Two simple questions. "Is what I'm doing right now the highest and best use of our time?", that's question number one. And, if not, then question number two, "How do I do this for the last time?" If you are absolutely rabid about getting the answer to question number two, it will change your life. Then we have all the tools and practices behind that, but that's the fundamentals is you gotta be, every day, asking those two questions. "Is what I'm doing right now highest and best use of my time? If not, how do I do this for the last time?" And there's all sorts of answers to that question, if you want to get the answer.
Shantel: Great. Well, how can people get in touch with you, Chuck? How can people learn more about your programs, and buy your books? What's the best way to reach out?
Chuck: Yeah. Well, I think and check us out at chuckblakeman.com. That's the easiest portal. We've got four or five, six other websites with chuckblakeman.com. And then they can get the books there, or on Amazon. Making Money Is Killing Your Business is the first book. Then Why Employees Are Always A Bad Idea is the second one. We've got a few more in the pipeline. Yeah, this was great. Thanks, Shantel. Look forward to talking to you more.
Shantel: Well, I appreciate you spending some time with us, and letting us soak up all of your knowledge. Really appreciate it.