We've all heard it: The pandemic has proven that remote work is possible indefinitely; the concept of the office has fundamentally changed, and there's no going back.
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Author and leading marketing mind Mitch Joel doesn't necessarily think so.
"I think it’s easy to say when everyone is remote this is forever changed, but when things even go slightly back, I wonder if it’s not going to go sort of back to the way it was," he admits on the latest episode of Markting Smarts.
Joel, author of Six Pixels of Separation and founder of Six Pixels Group, joins us to discuss what he calls "The Great Compression" caused by the pandemic: how technology has advanced and business has been digitized, but also how online monopolies and the balance of branding and direct response have remained basically the same.
One thing is clear, he says: Services have become the anchor of business, and companies that offer products must start thinking in terms of offering services.
He's also a big comic book nerd, and is happy to give recommendations.
Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.
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"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.
Matt Snodgrass: Welcome to another episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast brought to you by MarketingProfs. I am excited to have keynote speaker, author, and all-around great guy Mitch Joel on the show today with us.
How are you, Mitch?
Mitch Joel: I'm doing great. I'm excited to be here. I'm a big friend and fan of Ann Handley's and I've been attending and being part of the MarketingProfs B2B Forum forever. It's great to be back.
Matt: We're excited to have you back. I like to kick off the podcast with three softball questions. I want to know a little bit about you. The first question is what are you reading right now?
Mitch: I just finished reading an amazing graphic novel called Reckless by Ed Brubaker. Ed Brubaker is a very famed comic book storyteller and creator. He has decided to turn this story, Reckless, which is going to be in three volumes of graphic novels, two of them already out, the first one being Reckless. It's this really gritty pulp fiction like noir detective renegade story. It may not strike anybody as being interesting, but it's very stylized in the art.
I just found myself really captivated. I'm a bit of a comic book nerd, I love to read a lot. Lately, I've just been going deep down the rabbit hole and that's one that really stood out as something different in terms of what you can read and be engaged with. I just love it. It's a great series.
Matt: I have to ask, are you DC, Marvel, or an indie comic guy?
Mitch: That's a great question. If you're getting back into it, DC and Marvel can be really hard. These are stories and characters that have multi-universal platforms, different characters in different timelines. It's very hard to really follow an origin story. Out of the two, I'm definitely more Marvel. I don't think that would surprise anybody who likes comics. Marvel has just been killing it on the story and art side. DC has been struggling around their three platforms, which is Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
With that, I love the indies most. These are great because they know they need to grab you from the get-go. They're very contained, so you can pick it up, jump in, and just run with it. If I were going to make a recommendation that's really out there, weird, and different, Department of Truth would be a great indie book to pick up. The first handful, 10 or 15 issues, are already out in trade paperback, which is basically a collection of the first sequentially.
I would start somewhere there. If you want weirder suggestions or whatever, just reach out. I'm available to talk comics, always.
Matt: That's awesome. What's your favorite title of all time comic book wise?
Mitch: I always have a soft spot for Batman. I don't know why. My brother was more of a Spider-Man person. I don't know where that comes from, but that character, Gotham City, the Joker, some of the ways that they've developed the stories across the board have been just great in comic book. The movies have been very hit and miss. So, I would say Batman if I had to.
Matt: I don't want to spend our whole time talking about comic books, because I could.
Mitch: I can.
Matt: We definitely could. I don't know how much our audience would love that.
Mitch: They're already gone.
Matt: Half of them have already checked out. Sam Kieth's The Maxx, have you ever read those from the '90s?
Mitch: Yes. The '90s were a weird time for me. I started collecting very early '80s. I was quite young and that's when comic book stores started proliferating where I live. I got out of it in my early teens and didn't go back until a couple years ago. I went back because I thought it would be a great way to introduce my kids to another way to read. It didn't take for them, but somehow I got hooked up onto it real quickly. Every Wednesday is new comic book day and I'm watching online auctions and I'm all-in.
So, the '90s are a bit of a vacuum for me and I'm trying to backfill. The challenge with it is, again, if it's not something that's nostalgic or new, it falls into a weird place for me, it's a bit of a vacuum for me.
Matt: Do you read digitally or are you a physical comic book reader?
Mitch: It's primarily physical. I've tried digital with certain trades that I just can't get in the middle of a story. I read another great series called Saga. It's about 55 issues. It's incredible. The trades, you're talking about nine or ten trade publications. I was just at that point where it's like $20 a trade, and I realized my local library has it, so I was trying it digitally. Which is fine, but I like collecting. I kind of like the vibe of having either the trade or the physical books, the floppies as they call them now.
Matt: Very cool. We'll do another episode just on comics, because I would love to dive into this more with you.
Mitch: That sounds great.
Matt: Question number two, what is your drink of choice right now? What are you drinking?
Mitch: I don't drink any alcohol. Not for religious or medical reasons, it just never took with me. I like coffee, so I would say coffee would probably be the way to go. How do I like it best prepared? I'm a latte person. I like half-caffeinated. I don't like the full, double, triple shot things. I like going half and half. I like a mild froth on that milk, I would guess.
Matt: I just did a podcast interview recently and the guest told me everything in the world can be solved with coffee and bourbon. In my head I'm thinking this is a daily routine of having coffee with bourbon in it, and it wasn't until several minutes later as we were talking about this that he pointed out those are two separate drinks.
Mitch: I can go days without it, but I do love that idea of picking up a coffee and going for a walk or heading into a bookstore or library. That whole romanticism around that, I am all-in on, 100%.
Matt: Very cool. Now the tough one. We know what you're reading, we know what you're drinking. What are you thinking about right now from a business standpoint in the world of marketing and what you're doing? What's keeping you up at night?
Mitch: It's not what's keeping me up at night, it's more thinking about what will be. I think that's a normal place for reasonable businesspeople to be in this day and age. I think there's a marketing angle to it. The big question I have is what will work look like? There is so much conversation around we have completely changed, we are never going back to the office, this is the new way of doing this, we're going to go back three days a week, we're going to do this, etcetera.
As the world opens up again—and geographically it depends where you are, politically it depends where you are, especially in the States. I'm in Canada, so it's a little different up here. I just see that as things open up, it doesn't seem like anything changed. Concerts opened up and people weren't like, "Well, I'd rather watch the stream on YouTube." Restaurants opened up and people weren't like, "I'm just used to ordering with Uber Eats," Or, "I'm not going to go to the supermarket because I'm used to online ordering." We're just going back. I'm left perplexed by this thinking, or this thing that we see by a lot of our peers that it's forever changed.
The one thing that is forever changed out of all of this is going to be work. My sentiment is it's easy to make that call when we're all sitting here working primarily remotely. But if people are going back to the office and people are engaged in the office—and I've spoken to business executives and owners who are doing that—they're starting to feel that vibe that the people who aren't there, even though they're doing the work, they're not necessarily the ones who are getting the promotion, getting the raise, getting chosen for those special projects, etcetera. Again, I think it's easy to say when everyone is remote this is forever changed, but when things even go slightly back, I wonder if it's not going to go sort of back to the way it was.
I'm starting to believe that work will be almost like it was before, instead of this idea that we're forever changed. I really don't know how it's going to land, but that's the thing because all of that impacts everything we do. It really will impact everything from how our cities will be organized, public transportation, smaller businesses, how we connect to one another, these spaces – we used to talk about three spaces, your home, the office, and then the third space your local café or a library. The massive impacts on our economy, on who we are as people, is going to change if the primary driver is when we work, we work alone in our homes.
So, I'm just not sold on this idea that now it works, we proved it that we can all work remotely. I just don't know if I'm buying it.
Matt: It really seems like we proved the first step of this has the potential to work. It feels like we were shocked into this, we were thrown into this pool sort of without any preparation, and we know we can cobble something together and make it work to stay afloat. It doesn't feel like to me that we have really mastered this and figured everything out top to bottom to say yes, this is the way of the future. It feels like most organizations have just been sort of treading water until we can "back to normal."
Mitch: The thing with that is I don't know if I agree. That's part of what I'm going to talk a little bit about in my keynote The Great Compression. I call it the three Ss.
One, we went into survival mode back in March of last year when it first started. Then I think in August of last year back to school season, about a year ago now, we shifted into sustain mode. What would this look like in the longer term? How do we engage our customers? How do we engage our employees? How do we engage our clients? Then the third S is strive, which is probably where we were before the pandemic. Some companies might have felt a lot of striving during the pandemic because it accentuated their business and how things move forward.
But there's just too many indicators. Two of them being Microsoft came out with a very large survey basically saying that it depends, that in terms of collaboration, innovation, really moving things forward, they've seen a massive collapse of that. People doing their work? Yes. People really pushing products, innovations, and magic forward? Terrible.
There's another piece, I think it was just the other day in The Washington Post, that said that people who are physically going back to work are realizing that it's basically what they were doing at home because they're just stuck in Slacks and Zooms all day, but at the office, which would indicate not that we've proved it, but that it maybe doesn't work.
Then I think there's just an optimization that people forget. People think we've had offices and work for decades and it was broken. I would argue I don't know, maybe it was being optimized all the time and there are certain jobs and certain moments in time when you can obviously work from home and work remotely. Maybe all of us got accustomed to this reality, but again I'm wondering how our brains and spaces work if it's fully a world where I'm working in socks at home. We all need external and internal triggers or motions to innovate and be creative. It's not all the same for everybody. That's why I used the word almost. It's not going to be binary.
When people respond that we proved it, I don't know necessarily what we've proved. I don't think the stock market, which the vast majority of Americans have no financial interest in because they're not a part of it, is an indicator of real productivity, of real business growth, of real sales. I just don't feel that the story has been told. Even if this is a recovery, some people did exceptionally well, some people didn't do exceptionally well. I hear that and I can agree with what you're saying, but I could also vehemently disagree at the same time because I just don't know that we're there yet.
Matt: Do you think as a culture, as a society, as industries we have lost two years of innovation? You mentioned innovation a couple of times. I'm curious as to did this really put things on pause, did it reduce the amount of innovation, and are we significantly behind the curve in your view from where we would have been had this not happened?
Mitch: I don't know. I can't answer that because I don't think we had a definitive "this is where we were." Do I think that many people woke up and came up with new different business models, new ways of doing things, opening up newer channels to be connected? Yes. Do I think that there are some organizations that managed to just sustain through this while at the same time achieving record Wall Street results because of the nature of it? Yes. Again, I don't think it is binary.
If we want to relate it a little bit back to what I will be talking about with the gang here at MarketingProfs, I would say that there was a high level of forced innovation. The example I could give is we have a little not a supermarket, just a mini market just down the street from us that we love to go to. COVID comes in, the doors get closed. About a week later, "We don't want to go bankrupt here. What do we do? Let's start taking orders by phone and maybe by email, and we'll pick and pack, and people will call us, when they're there we'll open the door and slide it through with gloves and masks and they'll take their food." You know, the craziness of it.
Within a couple of weeks, this small business was Shopified. They realized they needed online commerce or just online ordering. A business or brand that you would never have thought would have a real digital ability suddenly wasn't just on Shopify but was now leveraging things like Google advertising and Facebook to talk about things like when they're open, what's on sale, what's available. It became part of the DNA.
We could look at this and say, "Well, the world has opened up now, you could just walk in, walk the aisles, and get what you want, your fresh breads, fruits, premade foods, and it's fantastic." But wouldn't it be a tremendous missed opportunity for that business to not maintain the digital commerce aspect of it, the superiority of local advertising that might make them a primary choice over a secondary option?
Ann Handley and I often talk about how different is B-to-B from B-to-C. I think if you could pull anything from this story it's that it's as B-to-B as anything. As B-to-B businesses, we're forced to really accept digitization and this great compression, this thing that I'm talking about. What I mean by that is you had everybody from K/1, our youngest of young, who are now fully engaged in digital, to our eldest of elderly who are now doing online ordering, we slid iPads under their doorway so we could speak to them and stay connected. They've become fully digitized, so you have your marketplace of customers has hit that protocol where even the ones who were like, "Our customers / clients don't do that. Our vendors / suppliers don't do that," now they do.
The question in that innovation paradox really becomes will they maintain it, this creating either newer business lines or more channels of connection and operation at a B-to-B level, or will they go back to the old ways because it was easier and it was the thing they did? I would suppose and I would impose this idea that why would you do that if you finally have these newer channels? Whether they're newer channels that are new business models, and fundamentally we've seen some new business models be developed through these innovations, or just accessibility for the customer, the facility of it.
Again, there's a million examples, and I'll talk about many of them during the keynote. That to me is the win. I think the miss is for B-to-B businesses to look at it from the perspective of that was B-to-C or that was this. I don't think that's the story. I think we can learn from everything.
When you see 40% of Americans take on some form of streaming service, the answer from a B-to-B marketer shouldn't be, "We don't stream video." The answer should be, "Hold on a second, we've created a natural habituation to this idea that customers don't want to buy one thing, they would rather pay a small monthly fee to have access to a library. What libraries do we hold in our business that maybe we've been holding behind or in black boxes that we could allow to be self-serve?" Another big component of what happened during COVID, the contactlessness.
There are so many behavioral innovations that happened that I think are huge to this. And that's me rambling on about one little question you asked.
Matt: That's wonderful. I want to talk a little bit about this idea of connectivity. You published Six Pixels back in 2008 or 2009. It's been over a decade, right?
Mitch: Yes, for sure.
Matt: I'm going to ask you to do a little time traveling here. If we could go back to pre-pandemic and then maybe get your thoughts on post-pandemic, how has this idea of connectivity changed since you first started thinking about it and writing about this over ten years ago? How did that change, and then how did the pandemic really just kick that into super high gear?
Mitch: I started the blog in 2003 and I haven't stopped since, so it's crazy to think that it will be 19 years.
Matt: Almost two decades.
Mitch: Yes. The premise of the blog, which led to the first book, both called Six Pixels of Separation, the subtitle to that book was Everyone is Connected, Connect Your Business to Everyone. You hear that and you think that's kind of what happened during the pandemic, wow that was really prescient. I think based on reflecting – and I haven't gone back to read it, I probably should – I would think that the core concept is very true.
Six pixels of separation – we have six degrees of separation, we have Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Six Pixels of Separation was really a play on the idea that we live in a world where we are all intrinsically connected now. I think that is true. Where I think it fell down is I believe that equal this idea that you plant a million seeds and a million flowers blossom. Getting us away from this model of a three corporate monopoly, basically, of ABC, CBS, NBC on TV, to where anybody can become a broadcaster, publisher, influencer.
Yes, that happened, yet we live in this strange monopolistic world of Google, Facebook, etcetera. It's strange to see the reflexive media component of it when back to being near-monopolistic. That's strange. But within that, it became monopolistic based off of founders creating things like YouTube or Instagram that have become these massive social platforms.
What happens is everything. Everything happens. It goes very ugly, and it goes very grand and beautiful. That's what technology does. It has nothing to do necessarily with social media in general. It's somewhat ambiguous, it's neither good nor bad. It's a lot of both. Or a little bit of bad that gets amplified into a lot of good that gets diminished because we want to talk about what's bad.
It's hard to reconcile from there to now because the world completely changed. This book was written in a time when YouTube as an idea being acquired by Google was still somewhat confounding to many. YouTube sold for a billion dollars, what? Now it generates that daily or something, it's like a ridiculous world.
So, everything changed. At the same time, if I look at the core pieces of it, I feel like I'm still talking about the core philosophy of this, of what happens, how do we operate and how do we grow in a world where we're all so connected.
Matt: I know you're talking about some organizations and some business models that have really excelled through this time. I'm wondering if you could point to one that has really wowed you that has come out in the last 18 to 24 months, in the midst of all of this. If there is one thing that has really stood out in your mind as, "Wow, this organization/brand really latched onto where we are and rocketed to the moon with what they're doing."
Mitch: The obvious answer would be Zoom, that world. But I don't like that answer because it was obvious to me long before the pandemic that you could have group video calls. It's a weird world where you've seen and been using technology forever and then suddenly people are like, "What? What is this Zoom of which you speak?"
Matt: The rest of the world has to catch up to you.
Mitch: Yes. Or if you see things like Discord or even the emergence of Clubhouse would be a great example of what happened during the pandemic.
Where my mind went when you asked that question was people who own pool businesses. Imagine you and I go back in time, it's January of last year, and I'm like, "Matt, you're not going to believe this. At the end of next month there's going to be a global pandemic that's going to shut down everything, I mean everything, we're not going to travel." You would be like, "You're high. What are you high on?" It would be absurd to you.
"I'm telling you it's going to be a global shutdown. Kids, no school, the whole thing." You'd say I was nuts. "Trust me on this, I'm 100% certain. With that, what I think you and I should do as entrepreneurs is open up a business selling pools." You'd be like, "What is going on? In what world where the entire world shuts down, which means the economy shuts down, which means people are going to be losing their jobs, out of work, people are going to buy pools now? Are you crazy?"
Matt: You are 100% right. I would have said those exact words to you, yes.
Mitch: But if you look, that business, you can't find materials, you can't buy a pool if you want a pool even. It's really hard. There are people clamoring, they're saving money, they're not going to work, they didn't go on vacation, and they're buying pools in their backyard because you never know if this is going to happen again. Again, that might be a five-year history that got compressed (Great Compression) into one year's time. Regardless, these businesses are booming. Those pools will require maintenance, which has subscription fees to it and service fees based to it.
It's not one business to speak to, it's that concept of me being confounded by the things that I thought would never work doing exceedingly well. Some of the businesses that I thought would do exceedingly well during this time, completely nosedived and didn't work. At the same time, the shift that I would focus on in terms of what area—I'll switch our question for you—is we spent a lot of time pre-pandemic talking about experiences. I know experiences are something that we've been talking about at MarketingProfs for a very long time. Experiences are everything. The experience we create, B-to-B, however you want to do it.
I really believe that services took over for experience during this pandemic, and that's going to create a big anchor or an idea to look for a clue for your business going forward. If you sell product, I think you need to start thinking about all of the services you can offer. If you sell services, I think you need to start thinking really seriously about which more services you can layer on top of it.
A really quick example would be Walmart. Matt, did you get a COVID pet during the pandemic, did you get a puppy or a kitten?
Matt: I think I'm one of the few who did not. No.
Mitch: Nor did I. But I can tell you that if you worked at Walmart you were pretty happy about it. Pet toys and pet food went through the roof. So, what did they do? They started selling pet insurance. To me, that's a really great example of ways in which you can look.
Again, if you don't believe me on the services thing, just look. Tim Cook just marked his tenth anniversary running Apple post-Steve-Jobs. I don't remember if you remember that diatribe, "Is Apple finished?" When Steve Jobs died it was like it was over. Record growth, I think they've had over 600% growth in market capitalization since Tim Cook took over. Not that much hardware; what's happening is the services side. The services side is equaling 55-60 billion dollars a year, it's equaling 20%+ overall. What it does is it's locking in people to the products and other services that the company has, it makes them more loyal.
Sorry for jamming not on choosing an actual brand but giving a couple of signposts or guideposts to where I would be looking versus being inspired by another business.
Matt: I love that we started off this conversation on the topic of pools, because in the content marketing world pools is sort of one of the great stories with Marcus Sheridan.
Mitch: He's a great friend of mine. Great guy.
Matt: Going back to his idea of providing all this insight around pools that still, 10+ years on, is the go-to example for really doing great content marketing. I love that you brought that back full circle.
Mitch: It still is, yes. When I look at the brands and businesses that are really excelling, they tend to be almost over-marketing, a lot of storytelling, a lot of brand building. Because the truth is, and we've known this for years, it's very hard to compete against a brand people really want to do business with. It's just really hard.
The thought was we're going to do this with advertising and just this ground-and-pound strategy. Surprisingly, this idea that knowledge is power is true. What Marcus did is he just provided customers with knowledge. "Before I send my crew out to your home, I want you to read this 40-page PDF," because he knew that if people read that PDF and called him back that they were sold.
That is a brilliant, scary, and terrifying way to think about lead generation, but it's incredibly powerful if you're not looking for every customer but for the right customer.
Matt: You mentioned a lot of companies are over-marketing right now. Do you feel like that's detrimental to their brand?
Mitch: No. If we think about advertising as a general component of marketing, which we should, we shouldn't think that advertising is marketing, people often confuse the two. I'm going to be simplistic and talk about two models. There's storytelling and there's direct response.
Because of what has happened through the digitization and this Great Compression and the things we talked about prior, it's very smart for new businesses to really focus and hammer down on the direct response because you can use technology and I hate the word growth-hacking, but these types of tools and technologies to really optimize where this ad and message is seen, how you're split A/B testing it, how you're hitting to landing pages, on and on. Then the storytelling component can go by the wayside because you're looking at 100% of your budget thinking this is just transacting for me on the other side.
The truth is, logically, if you stepped away from that model, you would think the smart thing to do would be 50/50, 50% storytelling, 50% direct response, and build your brand. But what you see on another plane is businesses that just use platforms like YouTube to connect and tell their story, create videos, and make you feel like you're a part of the family, that there is a familiarity. We often diminish the value of it because it's so powerful to turn to the analytics of direct response.
It's not a question of one over the other. You need to figure out what your diet looks like in that scenario. At the same time, I see the easy allure of direct response because it seems very tactical, you get those results, you see those results.
Matt: I think that is, unfortunately, what a lot of us as marketers are being pushed toward is the immediacy of results. Show me an ROI. If I give you this many dollars, what can you turn that into? I need to know what the ROI is on this in 90 days, or in some cases even 30 days. I think that shows kind of a shortsightedness on our part, but it's unfortunately the expectation that a lot of us are faced with right now.
Mitch: I've been slow forever. I'm still blogging like a moron, since 2003. I have the longest running business podcast in the world, probably. It's been running since shortly after that, close to 800 episodes, podcasting every week, never missed a week yet. I'm not trying to toot my own horn. I'm just trying to demonstrate that I believe in time and taking your time.
My good friend Dorie Clark has a brand new book out called The Long Game, which I hope is a smash breakthrough bestseller because maybe it will drive home what many people know, which is are you in it for the long haul.
You can even look at people like Gary Vaynerchuck, where he really talks about being in it. It looks like it's moving fast and building fast and pushing, but this is decades-long and he's in it for another 30 or 40, if we are to believe what he's saying. And I'm one who would believe he's in it for that type of long haul.
If I even look at businesses, we can look at the anomalies, the things that make the headlines, "This business was bought by Google for 2 billion dollars after being in business for 30 days." Real data would show you that a real business to go from start to success to transaction is usually around a decade. That's a good number, if you can get it done in 10 years. I just believe in that. There has always been a sense of short-term-ism long before digital, partially because of Wall Street, which we talked about. This constant need to show up and be better, faster, more every quarter can be an unrealistic and unsustainable model for most businesses, let alone the economy.
We've had the dance of that forever, it's always been there. Often businesses like to say that because they can then stand up and talk about numbers immediately versus how are things looking over the long haul and what would it look like through it. The pandemic was a great moment for us to think we might have to think a little longer term in a world where we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. That's a really challenging place that most of us found ourselves in.
Matt: Mitch, thank you so much for your time today. What a great conversation. We really appreciate you being here.
Mitch: It was my pleasure. Anything for MarketingProfs, I'm happy to hang out and talk about.
Matt: If folks want to reach out to you and talk comic books, or listen to 800 episodes of a podcast, or read an ongoing blog for almost two decades, where can they find you?
Matt: They'll take you somewhere and that's all we need. If you want to learn more about the Great Compression, if you want to hear what Mitch has to say, he is speaking at the B2B Forum October 13th and 14th, you can get your ticket on the MarketingProfs website. Mitch, again, thanks so much for your time today, my friend.
Mitch: Great seeing you, Matt. Thanks for your time.
Matt: Have a great day.
Thanks, everyone. Before you leave, I have one favor to ask of each of you. I don't want a review, I don't need a five-star review, I don't need something written on iTunes or anywhere else. But if you found something valuable from this podcast, do me a favor and share it with one friend. Give them an email, a text message, or call them and tell them you just listened to a great podcast. It will give them one more piece of marketing content and it will make you look like a superhero for giving them good stuff to listen to.
Until next time.
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Published on October 7, 2021
Mitch Joel, founder of Six Pixels Group—an advisory, investing, and content producing company that is focused on brands, commerce, community, and what’s next. He has been called “one of North America’s leading visionaries” by Strategy Magazine. He’s also a columnist and journalist for I Heart Radio, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. Magazine.
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