“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Today, we sit down with one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs and all-round legends, Mike Michalowicz. If you feel like you’re treading water in your career (or simply have lofty goals), or you’re thinking of going down the entrepreneurial route, this is the episode for you.
By his 35th birthday Mike had founded and sold two multi-million-dollar companies. Confident that he had the formula to success, he became a small business angel investor – but then proceeded to lose his entire fortune. Then he started all over again, driven to find better ways to grow healthy, strong companies.
Mike has devoted his life to the research and delivery of innovative, impactful strategies to help business owners succeed. He is the creator of Profit First, which is used by hundreds of thousands of companies across the globe to drive profit. He is the creator of Clockwork, a powerful method to make any business run automatically. And his latest, arguably most impactful discovery, is Fix This Next, where he details the strategy businesses can use to determine what to do – and in what order – to ensure healthy, fast, permanent growth (and avoid debilitating distractions).
Mike is a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a business makeover specialist on MSNBC, and author of #1 bestselling books such as Clockwork, Profit First, Surge, The Pumpkin Plan, The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, and his new book Fix This Next.
In this interview, we go through:
- What separates the top 1% of entrepreneurs and professionals
- How to get your business to run without you
- Why some people are constantly on the brink of burnout (and how to find freedom once and for all)
- How those in a traditional career path can become 'irresistibly magnetic'
- What the 'profit first' concept is and how it can transform your business, and
- How to set your business up for massive success in 2021 … without the stress!
You’re going to love this one. Let’s Win the Day, with Mike Michalowicz!
Mike, thanks for being here. First, I want to start by letting you know that The Pumpkin Plan is the best audiobook I’ve ever heard! Energy and content are both on point, so well done, sir. It must be comforting to know that if all else fails, you at least have a profitable career as a narrator ahead of you!
Perhaps, right!? It's funny, when I go to the recording studio, I always stand — and I’m the only person who stands. So, when I arrive, these studios are like, "Here's your seat," and I'm like, "No, I'm sorry," because I get so jacked up.
Well, I went to this one studio, and the narrator before me for his book was a guy named Michael J. Fox, you know that name. I remember coming in, he had just left, and I talked with the producer. I said, "What's it like having Michael J. Fox present?" She goes, "He's a thoroughbred. He wants to be whipped and he'll run faster." I'd read for a while, then I said, "What do you think I am?" She's like, "You're kind of a Clydesdale. You clump along and you get the job done, but we have to do a lot of retakes." So, that's my reading skill.
You work with entrepreneurs, but it seems your work overlaps spousal relationships, professional services, and so many other different areas. Have you found some unexpected results outside of that entrepreneurial audience who you primarily serve?
Yeah. You know, it's funny, I have. It's married couples. I am not a couples counselor by any stretch of the imagination. I have had multiple occasions where couples who are also business partners have reached out and said, "We've reconciled our marriage. We feel stronger." It's interesting how our personal lives and our business lives are locked, and when it's our marital life and our business partner life, it can get to be a real nightmare.
I think it's the systems I teach that simplify the process, but it also simplifies the communication. Partners start speaking eye to eye, and they're not cross-talking. Perhaps that serves marriages. I never expected that, but I do hear that frequently.
Even planting the right seeds and making sure we’re focused each day on the end goal, whether it is a successful marriage or a successful business partnership. Those who go into business with their spouse are usually in for a bumpy ride… I mean, there's maybe two or three times I've seen that actually work successfully. Everyone else just ends up burnt out, on all counts, and the relationship is one of the big sacrifices.
Listen, I can barely be with myself 24 hours a day. That's actually really hard. Being with someone else 24 hours a day? Forget it!
In your books, you challenge the modern-day definition of ‘entrepreneurship’ and state that real entrepreneurs shouldn't be doing most of the work. Instead, it's their job to identify the problems, discover the opportunities, and then build the processes that allows other people and other things to do the work for them. But how do these entrepreneurs recognize that they are on that hamster wheel, and what can they do about it?
If you start seeing yourself doing repetitive tasks, that's the number one indicator. So, if you do something again and again and again, that's an indication that there's, first of all, demand for that task to be replicated, but you, the entrepreneur, need to find a way to outsource it, systematize it, and assign it out – because if you're doing the repetition, that means you are now within the business. An entrepreneur, at least in the early stages, we are that icebreaker. We're going to break into the new space and leave space behind for other people to do the work. But if we keep on turning around, we can't break forward.
Ultimately, too, we need to transition from doing any kind of work, including the icebreaking, and moving our way to designing outcomes. What I mean by this is clear vision, and then considering, almost like a chess board, putting the right people in the right places, the right system in the right places to choreograph them collectively to achieve that outcome. That's the ultimate definition of entrepreneurship: we are not doing the job; we are creating the jobs.
What separates the top entrepreneurs and professionals – the ones who are always onto bigger and better things, making a bigger impact, and appear free in their day to day life – versus your run of the mill entrepreneur / professional who's constantly on the brink of burnout and never seems free?
You know, it seems to be purpose. Purpose in the business. A greater purpose of why we're doing what we're doing. I believe the entrepreneurs who struggle are going after money and thinking, “This is a way to make an income and support my life.” Well, that's a very volatile thing. If this doesn't make enough money, we move on to something else, we get frustrated.
That's the ultimate definition of entrepreneurship: we are not doing the job; we are creating the jobs.
But entrepreneurs who lean into purpose, meaning “This is why I'm on this planet and my business is an amplification or expression of serving that reason,” those people become relentless. I'm not saying relentless in that they're working ridiculous hours necessarily. They may. That's not healthy, in my opinion, but they have a ridiculous commitment to achieving that purpose. They become very thoughtful about it. They look at ways of amplifying it. They look at ways to leverage. That is the drive of purpose.
People with purpose also don’t give up. You know this – overnight successes take 10 or 20 years. A lot of these successes when they come to our purview, when we see it as a consumer, well, they've already been around for 15 years working relentlessly on this purpose. But it's purpose that begets drive and drive begets success.
Yeah, which incorporates mastery and enables you to be resilient and resourceful to acquire everything you need to achieve that mission.
What about passion – where does that come into it? A lot of people hear about ‘passion’ and ‘purpose’, but how are they aligned and how do people go and find these things if they don't already know what their purpose on the world is?
I would say purpose is the beacon and passion is the fuel. So, there is a difference. Purpose is asking ourselves what we’re moving toward. Business owners who don't have purpose are running away, thinking, “I can't handle these struggles” or “I don't want this problem.” They’re running away from that problem. Purpose is we're getting pulled towards something, and you move so much quicker when the magnetic force is pulling you in the same direction. That's what purpose is.
But passion is the fuel. It's the day-in, day-out fuel. If you have a great purpose, but you're not passionate about what you're doing, it becomes a real slog to stick with it.
The key is to find out what gives us joy in the activity.
The key is to find out what gives us joy in the activity. Not all entrepreneurs are cut out to manage people and to choreograph resources and stuff like that. Some entrepreneurs create an amazing idea, but they really should stay as doers. They're really talented at something. Those entrepreneurs, if they're smart, are going to bring in someone who has the talent to do the management of people and so forth. But we have to make sure that we're in a field of passion that gives us excitement on a day-to-day basis. As an entrepreneur, find that for yourself, drive toward that purpose, and you got the one-two punch.
A lot of your work encourages business owners to have a business that runs itself, and I think everyone aspires to that goal. But it might seem impossible for some people who are too deep in the trenches. Where do they start, especially the ones who are concerned about quality control?
Yeah. It's called the ‘I Can Syndrome.’ It's dangerous. I suffered from that from years. I said as an entrepreneur, "I can do this. I can do that." It's true, I can do it, I just do a real shitty job at it. That's the part I didn't add in. So, we can do lots of things, but ‘can do’ and ‘competence’ are two totally different things. First of all, we have to acknowledge that about ourselves, that we're not superheroes. We may have super talents in certain areas, but we can't do everything.
The next thing is to get the muscle of delegation in place. Delegation is where we assign outcomes to people and then hold them accountable to the outcomes. We have to start with the low hanging fruit, stuff that we are repeatedly doing and that there's low risk of assigning someone else. If they really flub it up, how much damage can that really do to your business?
For example, invoicing. That is easy to outsource, and the risk, if they really flub it up, that's recoverable. That can be caught pretty easily. It's actually a low risk. If someone instead of charging $1 charges $10 million by accident, the client will probably figure it out and bring you some awareness there. It is recoverable, but there's certain things that are irrevocable – for example, if they mess something up and it kills the relationship. Those are the things that we have to get a little more sophisticated in our delegation before we start doing it. So, start slow with delegation and then let it grow.
In the last few years, we've heard so much about the importance of starting with your why, but in your new book Fix This Next you talk about the power of what and understanding your what. How do people discover what their ‘what’ is in their business?
In Fix This Next, I did this thing called the business hierarchy of needs. It's a translation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is a human needs system as a business needs system. The great distinction is the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, we know what we need instinctually because we have inputs like eyesight, hearing, smell, touch, we get gut instincts. Our gut doesn't work so well in business. We need empirical data. We need the information from our business.
So, I created five levels just like Maslow, but within them, there's five needs at each level. Collectively, I call them the 25 core needs. I found this to be consistent in businesses of any type and industry. What we do is we go through a sequence and we make sure that the base level needs of our business are satisfied, and only when they're adequately satisfied can we elevate high-level needs within our business, just like human needs.
You and I both need to breathe, eat food, drink water. If we're not breathing right now, this interview is done. Even though we're serving a higher-level need right now, if the base is compromised, we go to it. Well, in business, the base is the generation of cash, which comes through sales. If you're not generating cash, your business is suffocating. We got to breathe. We revert to that. But once we have sales in and it's adequate, then the focus is profitability, the retention of cash, because that brings about stability, longevity. You can see in the 2020 crisis, the pandemic, how many businesses were focusing on sales but not profit. They're off the planet now. They're done. So, profit is the next level of needs.
You can see in the 2020 crisis, the pandemic, how many businesses were focusing on sales but not profit. They're off the planet now. They're done.
Once that's satisfied adequately, we move to orchestration of efficiency, which is no dependency on any individual – particularly the owner – like we spoke about earlier. There's impact, that's the creation of transformation. This is where businesses systemically don't do transactions, but transformation. What I mean by systemic transformation, it's not one client saying, "This was an amazing experience." That's when every client says, "This was an amazing experience."
Then the highest-level need in a business is the formation of legacy or permanence. This is where a business is designed to live on beyond the owner. This is where business owners find out that they were really never business owners in the first place. We've been business stewards. We had a responsibility to bring this entity to life, but it's about the entity continuing on for generations, to serve generations regardless of the owner's input.
I'm really happy you brought up retention of cash because I actually read your book Profit First earlier in the year. It's a concept that I feel like is so rare. Why is it that that profit first mentality such a rare thing for businesses when they're starting out?
I think because it's not logical. But the ironic thing is we don't need logic. We need behavior. We humans, we feel that we're very logical, but we're behaviorally based. Traditional accounting tells us a very logical formula. Your sales minus expenses you incur results in profit. So, sales minus expense equals profit.
But I saw a study that just opened my eyes to that formula not working. It was conducted by a US bank which identified that 83% of small businesses globally – small businesses is a company with up to $25 million in revenue – are surviving check by check. They’re in a constant panic, and are not profitable. I'm like, "How come the 250 million people who start a business to achieve wealth, to be financially free, can't figure out the number one reason we started a business?"
That's why I looked at the formula. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, it's right there in the formula." It says profit comes last. In fact, it's in our vernacular. We call it the bottom line or the year end. All these terms say last. It's the behavior of people, humans, when something comes last, it means it's insignificant. So, we're saying profit is insignificant. We delay the consideration. At the end of the year, they have profit, “No, dammit, maybe next year.”
When something comes last, it gets delayed and delayed. So, in Profit First, fundamentally we flipped a formula. It's sales minus profit equals expenses. In practice, what I'm saying is every time revenue comes into your firm, take a predetermined percentage of that money, allocate it toward a profit account, hide the money away, and run your business off the remainder. It's the ‘pay yourself first’ principle applied to business.
What about with early-stage entrepreneurs who feel like they've got their purpose, but they're not comfortable charging what they believe they're worth, or they're not comfortable having the conversation that gets them remunerated for the expertise that they have? What advice do you have for those people who struggle to charge for something that they're inherently good at or something that they want to make a business out of?
First of all, I get it. Secondly, I want to shake them and say, "Are you kidding me!? You have to charge more," because the number one argument you'll get not to increase prices is always from yourself. It's our own head, "I'll lose my customers. What if no one likes me anymore?" Here's the deal. If you raise your prices and you lose customers, it means all they cared was that you were the cheap guy. They want cheap, and who wants someone that wants you because you're cheap? So, they're cheapening you. I'll tell you something else, and this is the big secret. The vast majority of your clients, I guarantee, want you to be profitable.
Now, here's the deal. They don't say, "Hey, can you charge me more?" And they won't say, "Could you rip me off a little bit? I really would like that." But what they will say is, "I want your full attention. When I buy your product or service, I want you delivering the best of yourself. I want your undivided attention. I don't want you worrying about where you're making money and panicking, because then you'll half ass me. So, care for me."
This is the big secret. The vast majority of your clients, I guarantee, want you to be profitable.
The only way you can care for a client, the only way you can give them focus, is if you're not worrying about money. The only way you can do that is if you're sustainably profitable, and the only way you can do that is by increasing your prices. Your clients want you to increase your prices because they want your full undivided attention.
So true. It's interesting, a lot of the concepts you talk about really are flipping that script on the traditional way of thinking.
It really is. A lot of it’s framing, right? It's the old, “Whether you think you can or can't, you're right.” I think Henry Ford said that. If I say I suck at math, I won't do the math practice and I'll suck at it. What if I said I like to find shortcuts in math? I will start repositioning myself. The internal dialogue we have is very important on how we position our business.
You’ve stated previously the importance of being irresistibly magnetic in business to succeed. But what if you're in a fairly traditional job, like an accountant or a lawyer or a financial advisor, what do those professionals do to be different and irresistibly magnetic?
Well, start by breaking the label. As you were saying, accountant, lawyer, oh my God, I start falling asleep myself! The thing is, if I said to you, "Hey, James, I'm a lawyer," the conversation is done. You know what a lawyer is, you know I'm going to sue somebody. The question is, since all lawyers are the same from the customer's perception, it's like, are you cheaper? So, if your label is the same as your competition, the consumer sees you the same, and then you enter the downward price pressure game, which is a dangerous game to be in. It's a race to the bottom. The first step is break the label. Don't be an ‘accountant’, be a ‘profit advisor.’
Now, it's got to speak to your skill set. You better know how to increase people's profit. Don't be a ‘lawyer’, be ‘integrated counsel’, someone that integrates into the culture to write better legal documents. You have to break the label and it has to speak to your service differentiator. If you don't change the label, I don't care how different you are, clients aren't going to see it, because the second you say, you're a lawyer, they're going to say, "I know what you do. Don't tell anything else. Are you cheap?"
In business, no one seems to care as much as the owner. What can business owners do to empower their team to care as much about the day-to-day operations and the results as they do?
It's funny, I'm working on a book, I mean, this won't come out for five or six more years, so we're in deep analytics right now doing this and running tests. I own multiple companies. We're testing on our own companies, but we're testing other companies. Here's the number one discovery we've had: no one cares about the business goals except for the owner.
In my own business years back, I was in the forensics industry doing computer crime investigation. It was very clear… I calculated if we did the right moves, we could have a $10 million year. For me at that point, that had been the biggest business I’d ever had. I came out, I called all my employees together and said, "This is the year," I had the drumroll going, "We're going to do $10 million. Ta-da!" It was crickets.
I'm like, "Why aren't you guys excited!? $10 million!" My trusted confidant, her name was Patty, came up to me and said, "Mike, if we make $10 million, you get a new car, a new house, but why do we care?" That's when I had the realization that the number one concern for every single person is their own concerns. Judy cares about being home on time to be with her family for dinner. Mark cares about saving money to buy his motorcycle. Dave wants to go back to school. And it goes on, and on, and on. Everyone has their own concerns. So, the job of a business owner is to understand the vision and desires that our colleagues have, then organize the path of the business to satisfy their needs as we achieve the journey of our own personal goal. It's called individual goal alignment.
The job of a business owner is to understand the vision and desires that our colleagues have, then organize the path of the business to satisfy their needs as we achieve the journey of our own personal goal.
In our own wall here, we call it the path to intentions. There's a whole wall in our building with everyone's individual dreams. They're little micro dreams, leaving early on Fridays so I can go to baseball games that my son's playing in and stuff like that. We have them pinned up, and we say, "Are we achieving these individual dreams?" Now, the company is not going to buy a house for someone, but it's going to free up the time for them to see a real estate agent. It's going to bring the dream up over and over again and say, "What are you doing to get there?" Because people feel empowered when they achieve their own dreams. We just need to support them and recognize them.
So, the people who aren't even going out of their comfort zone to inquire as to what it is about their team's dreams, they have no one else to blame for their inferior results if they're not getting there?
Correct. When we're like, "We're all fired up. You're making a salary!" we need to recognize that a salary is a means to a living, but it's living that we need to address. The vast majority of businesses, including myself for years, ignore that. Now I'm attuned with that.
I've got a super little company. I have multiple, but this is the hub company where I'm broadcasting from, there's six people. Of the six people, three of us are full-time and the other three are part-time, yet our numbers are consistent with a company of about 20 employees. I'm getting consistently asked and curious about how can we be performing at such a level? But we are so attuned to what every individual wants. We also figured out another thing is match people's talents not to titles. We used to be very title oriented. If you're reception, you've got to answer the phones, do this and light data entry.
We now match talent to the tasks. We have a web like structure. Jenna, one of our colleagues, is extraordinary at writing. She used to be our email manager. Well, she's not our email manager anymore. She writes the emails. We have someone else who’s good at the number crunching and the data set up, but she's also writing articles and blogs now, which is Jenna's passion. Jenna has elevated extraordinarily and represents us better than ever before. Her work output is three times what it was before because she's not in any area of frustration. She's doing what she loves. We try and do it for every employee. The result is we don't have that pyramid structure of an organization. We have a web like structure.
I had Keith Ferrazzi, author of books like Never Eat Alone, on the show a few months ago, and he's been a huge influence on me.
Oh, yeah. I've seen him speak before. He's excellent.
His new book, Leading Without Authority, talks about that concept of co-elevation, where instead of your mission, you actually bring a lot of people into that to make it a shared mission. So, the way that they care about the company and its results is by you interlocking their desires and their dreams with their role at the company. Is that correct?
That's exactly it. You know, I was looking at popular mechanics, I get a little geeky, and they were looking at these things called Doric and Corinthian columns, columns that would support heavy structures made out of marble. They plugged into a supercomputer and said, "How do we make a column of the same material, but with less density and retain the strength? The system went through and it made... it almost describes a web like structure. There was no symmetry to it, it was just this web like structure. The column I think was one-third of the material, but retained the exact strength. That's what we need to do in our business, these web-like structures.
You mentioned before you've got a new book coming out a little bit down the track. You've already got at least six books out that we know about that have been translated into 20+ languages. They're all seriously kick-ass books. I’m curious, what's your process of being able to come up with a concept and figuring out whether there's actually demand for that particular solution that you're providing, as well as being able to get books published at a fairly frequent basis?
I'll do reverse order. I'm writing constantly. I wrote for three hours today already. But I write in parallel, so right now I'm about to submit my manuscript actually in two days for my most current book. I'm also working on a manuscript for my next book, and I'm working on the outline for the book after it. So, I do parallel processing. I think that's a big component. I'm already working on the 2025 to 2028 books right now.
The testing is real simple: I reach out to my readership. The beginning was kind of tough because I didn't have a readership. Now I'm very blessed. I have a readership that's engaged and will respond, and I say, "Hey, where are you struggling now?" And it's the feedback I use from them to pinpoint what subjects are important in the sequence.
Then, going back to the inception of books, I've been an entrepreneur my entire life, and I've had some wonderful successes. I've had some really, really big struggles. It was during the struggling periods I wrote down what I didn't understand about entrepreneurship. I wrote probably about 100 different elements I didn't know. I've distilled it to 25-30 things that I think are important, and so I think ultimately I'll be producing 25-30 books as long as it's in alignment with what people want. That's how I do it.
You're brilliant at taking these seemingly complex tasks and projects and making that something easy where people can essentially put one foot in front of the other. So, thank you very much for all you do and sharing everything here.
Systems are a big part of what you do now. I want to ignore the business side for a moment and focus on you personally in your role as a husband, as a father, or even as a role in your own health. What systems do you have in place? Is there anything that comes to mind that helps you be effective in any of those roles?
Yeah, I think so. I'm very process-oriented, so I wake up at 5:30am every morning, and go through a meditative practice. I write from 6:00am to 7:00am. I call it writing sprints, which I do with other authors. From 7:00am til 8:00am, I hit the gym for either cardio or weights. Then, I’ll eat, take a shower, hang out with my wife for a little bit, and I'm off to work.
I'm walking into my office at 9:00am. It's very ritualized, right? I'll prepare my cup of coffee. What I do is I put these elements of anticipation in, so I'm always looking forward to the next moment because there's a little ritual there of the coffee or sitting down with my wife or working out.
I put these elements of anticipation in, so I'm always looking forward to the next moment.
I workout regularly. I don't like to workout. I just don't miss it. So, at the end, the ritual is a text to an accountability group saying, "Workout done," and a show of my Fitbit results so I can't fake it. I look forward to those moments, and therefore push harder through the activity. That's served me in my personal life, my health and stuff like that.
My wife is also a great guard of time. It's very easy for me to not stop working because I have such a passion for it. She'll say, "All right, you said you're done by 5:00pm. I expect you home at 5:15pm and I have a bottle of wine waiting for you." She also is a great accountability partner, and wine doesn't hurt.
It sounds like so much of this stuff that you've got is around just having an awareness of what helps you perform at your peak, and then being able to create the systems that help facilitate that, even if it's a task you don't particularly enjoy.
I think so. For me, it works very well. I think it's a little bit manic for some people that I'm so process-oriented, but it works for me. I will say this. I've cooled down a little bit as the years have gone on, and have been more present in more moments, and I appreciate that.
My daughter, for example, this is about two months ago, she said, "Hey, I want to go to cross country, my friend can't do it because of the COVID situation. Do you want to go on a 14-day trip with me cross country?" My schedule is booked up so my instinct is “No,” but my knowledge is like, "If your daughter wants to spend a second with you, you better say yes and figure it out." So, I said, "Yes, I'm in. I'm the third wheel guy, I'm in." I had to change everything accordingly. It was the best move of my life, I think, to be with my daughter like that. I am a work in progress, but I'm learning the importance of presence.
Yeah, you can't get that time back with your daughter. You realize that the most important thing is making sure that you're not just spending time with them, but having that presence and that quality time with them.
That's exactly right.
Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?
It's so obvious. It's exercise and health. There's a big difference. As the day goes on, my energy is building, and people are like, "How do you have so much energy?" I'm like, "I really work at maintaining energy." My output at the end of the day often feels just as strong, if not stronger than it was throughout the rest of the day. I attribute that to religious exercise and rest and recovery, exercise and recovery.
Yeah, absolutely love it. Mike, thanks so much for being on the show!
James, thank you, brother.
Resources / Links Mentioned:
⚡ Mike Michalowicz website.
💰 Profit First by Mike Michalowicz.
📙 Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr Robert Cialdini
🧭 Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang