Michael Coles is a successful entrepreneur, investor, advisor and community leader.  He co-founded The Great American Cookie Company and grew it into the largest franchisor of cookie stores with 350 locations and sales of over $100 million when he sold the company.  He was also the CEO of Caribou Coffee which became a publicly traded company.  He is a big supporter of Kennesaw State University, whose business program is fittingly named the Michael J Coles College of Business.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • How he turned $8,000 into a $100 million cookie empire.
  • One minor detail almost derailed his entire business on opening day.
  • How a near fatal motorcycle accident inspired him to set a transcontinental bicycle record.
  • “If it ain’t broke, you haven’t looked hard enough.”
  • It’s not about being the biggest but being the best.
  • “The biggest handicaps we face are the limitations we place on our vision and our imagination.”
  • Real learning comes from understanding our personal responsibility with setbacks instead of blaming others

 

There are two levels of entrepreneurialism for kids.  The one that 99% of kids fall into which is the “go hustle and make a buck” kind.  Delivering papers on a route, raking leaves, etc.  Then there’s the 1% who have the vision and hustle to go to the next level of securing all the contracts with the homes in the neighborhood and then hiring all the other kids to service those homes.  That’s Michael Coles for you. His entrepreneurial brilliance shone through at a very young age.  Michael realized the real money wasn’t in raking leaves or shoveling snow.  It was managing the leave rakers and snow shovelers.  It wasn’t hard to see how the future career of Michael Coles would unfold.

He never set out to build a cookie empire.  His goal when he opened his first cookie store was a modest one – simply to bring in some extra income while trying to figure out his next career move.   But there was one little problem.  Michael was way too savvy of an entrepreneur and the industry was way too stagnant for him to settle for just a little extra income.  While most the cookie store owners operated as bakers, Michael saw this opportunity through the lens of a retailer.  He expanded the merchandise offerings, added promotions, introduced cross-selling and upselling and started sampling.  These days such commonplace retailing strategies are straight out of the merchandising 101 playbook but not back in the 70’s and 80’s and not in the cookie business.  Michael reinvented the way bakery products were marketed and sold.

While his vision and tenacity allowed him to persevere in the end and build a thriving business, like with any good story, he had his fair share of setbacks along the way.  The biggest one was a near-fatal motorcycle accident just a few weeks into starting the company.  He was lucky to be alive but was told that we would never walk again unaided.  For most people, such a fire prognosis often becomes a self-fulfilling one and they’ll be content to lead the rest of their lives as a cripple.  But not Michael.  He was so driven to prove the doctors wrong that he not only fully recovered but actually increased his exercise regimen from before the accident.  He picked up a bicycle, which he hadn’t done since he was a kid, and started riding.  And riding.  And riding.  He rode across the state of Georgia and didn’t stop peddling until he reached San Diego.  He ended up setting a new transcontinental bike record which would be broken just a few years later… by Michael once again.

As many endurance athletes can attest to, the benefits of exercise usually spill over into other parts of one’s life. Such was the case with Michael.  He came back from record-setting rides refreshed and hungrier than ever.  He was suddenly able to see the business in an entirely new light.  Sure, the business was doing fine.  It was profitable and growing.  But fine wasn’t good enough.  The market was evolving, the competition was increasing but The Great American Cookie Company more or less stayed the same.  So he reengineered the business from the ground up – new recipes, a modernized store design and better training just to name a few areas.  It wasn’t about being the biggest but the best.  These changes allowed him to scale the business to over $100 million in revenue and the rest, as they say, is cookie history.

While Hollywood couldn’t write a better script than Michael’s wild success in the cookie business, not every story in his life would have such a Hollywood ending.  He took over the helm of Caribou Coffee but while he doubled the size of the business and took the company public, the stock took a tumble.  Running a public company with the constant pressure of meeting quarterly expectations was not a great experience.  And his bids for the U.S. House and Senate would not prove successful.  But he’s the first to tell you that we learn more from our setbacks than we do from our successes.  Real learning comes from understanding our personal responsibility with such setbacks as opposed to blaming others.

Michael is one of a kind.  He’s more than earned the right to pack it in and enjoy the good life.  But he’s still very active sitting on Boards, mentoring first time entrepreneurs and overseeing multiple philanthropic efforts.  He’s as passionate today about giving back as he was about business success over the course of his illustrious career.  He’s made his mark in many areas but he’ll forever be known as the Cookie King.

Sid is the co-founder and owner of Sid Mashburn men’s clothing store.  Both Esquire and GQ have named Sid Mashburn one of the best menswear shops in America.  Today they have five stores in five cities and 135 employees and are continuing to add new stores every year.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • How Sid sees himself in the hospitality business, not the retail business.
  • To find the white space, just follow your heart.
  • How a company culture kit is critical to scaling a business.
  • What are economy of time, economy of mind and economy of money.
  • How trying to be all things to all people can be an effective business strategy.
  • You can have enormous success by just taking things one step at a time.
  • Aiming to be the best at something is more important and rewarding than trying to be the biggest.

 

Walking into a Sid Mashburn store is not like walking into any other men’s clothing store.  It’s a full sensory experience, from the classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes cranked up high to the stuffed wildlife protruding from the walls to the seagrass on the floor to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.  Oh, and of course there’s also the ping pong table.  This is all part of a master plan to make the store feel like a warm and inviting place to anyone who walks through the doors.  “The store is meant to feel like a fraternity that everybody gets a bid to”, as Sid conveys the ambiance he’s trying to capture.

This unique in-store aesthetic is just the tip of the iceberg in Sid Mashburn’s retail experience.  It’s all about the high-touch service you’ll find the minute you enter the shop.  You’ll be greeted with a smile and offered a beverage of your choice. They’ll ask if you’d like to have a seat while they hang up your jacket. What you won’t find here are high pressure sales tactics. That’s because the sales people are not on commission.  The goal is simple – to have you feel like you’re walking into someone’s home.

Sid was raised in a small town in Mississippi and it’s not hard to see how the southern hospitality he grew up with has become a core piece of the brand DNA.  It’s not fake.  It’s not for show.  It’s just an authentic expression of who Sid is as a person. He doesn’t see himself as being in the retail or clothing business but rather, the hospitality business.  He craves having that intimate relationship with the customer which is why he likes to benchmark against best-of-breed hospitality brands – think Danny Meyer in the restaurant space and the Ritz in the hotel world.

Marketers are taught that you need to have a well-defined target audience to succeed. Sid never got that memo. He wants everyone to feel welcome in his shop which is why you’ll find a $65 pair of Levis just a few feet away from a $10,000 suit.  Customers range in age from 11 to 87 and between his physical stores and his e-commerce business, he touches pretty much every corner of the country.

We’ve all heard the cliché to follow your passion.  It’s usually easier said than done.  But Sid Mashburn has done just that since day one.  He’s as enamored today about fashion as he was in his youth when clothing defined his childhood as much as music and sports.   And you can see that he truly just enjoys helping people.  He’s as happy to patch and repair an old worn pair of pants if that’s what you need as he is to sell you an elegant handmade suit.  His business goals are much more centered on taking care of people, both employees and customers, than they are on growth and profits.

This isn’t to say Sid isn’t ambitious.  He’s very success-oriented.  It’s just that success in his mind is defined much more by quality than it is by quantity.  The overarching goal is simple – to become the best shop in the world.  And judging by the accolades bestowed upon him by GQ and Esquire, he’ll already well on his way.

Raj Raghunathan is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.  He has also become an expert in the field of happiness.  He is the author of the book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy.  He teaches an MBA course on happiness as well as a class on the online learning platform Coursera entitled: A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment.  Over 170,000 students have taken the course and it’s consistently ranked as one of the top ten courses (amongst thousands of others).

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?
  • Why do we devalue happiness even though we know how important it is?
  • How fear of failure often prevents us from trying things we know would make us happier.
  • How having wealth and status and success can make us happy, yet the pursuit of those things can make us miserable.
  • Once you stop comparing yourself to others and just focus on immersing yourself in your work (or activity), you’ll actually increase your likelihood of success.
  • How we can rewire ourselves to increase our level of happiness.

 

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?  This counterintuitive philosophical question is the aptly named title of Raj’s quintessential book on happiness.  Generally speaking, smart and successful people are pretty good at setting goals and achieving them.  So one would think that if they are able to set goals around wealth and success, they could just as easily set goals around happiness.  But more often than not, they don’t.

So why exactly do we devalue happiness?  Why is it that despite knowing intuitively how important happiness is, we rarely prioritize it?  One reason is what Raj refers to as “Medium Maximization”.  That is, we focus on the means to the end (i.e. money, status) and not the end itself (happiness).  Since we think the money and success will naturally lead to happiness, we end up concentrating all our efforts on the money and success while forgetting about the very reason we were wanting it to begin with.  While the money and success may boost happiness levels initially, those feelings quickly subside in which case we need even greater levels of wealth and power to maintain those levels.  It’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over.

We also have a difficult time articulating what happiness means to us.  And if we can’t visualize the goal in concrete terms, we don’t prioritize it.  So we end up prioritizing those things which are easier to measure (and easier to control) such as money and accomplishments.

Raj also points out that as humans, it’s in our DNA to seek superiority.  In fact, studies show that higher status does indeed enhance the quality of our lives and our happiness levels.  Yet, paradoxically, the actual pursuit of that higher status can backfire and cause us misery.  Tethering your happiness on being superior to others is ill advised.  Instead, if you focus solely on immersing yourself in your work (or hobby or activity), you’re much more likely to enjoy yourself and actually end up being more successful as well.  This “immersion” is what’s commonly known in positive psychology circles as “flow”.

So while we may have a better understanding intellectually why happiness is so elusive, how do we reverse course and become happier people?  Raj offers a few action items:

  • Do the things on a day to day basis that are meaningful and enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be work-related (although that’s ideal).  It can be tennis or guitar or gardening.  Anything that brings you joy.
  • Spend more time on personal relationships. Don’t take your friends and family for granted.  Your interactions with the people you care about in your life are as important as anything else.
  • Build habits that give an internal sense of wellness (i.e. exercise, meditation). Being physically and mentally healthy are essential ingredients to happiness.

As Raj reminds us of the cliché we all know too well, days and weeks will become months and years and next thing you know, you’ll be 70 and regretting your life.  So don’t wait another year or even another day.  Start today.  Take baby steps if you need to.  But take action.  Do something.  Anything.  After all, this is your life.  You deserve to be happy.

Andrew Skurka is an accomplished adventure athlete, known for his solo ultra-long-distance backpacking trips.  In total he has traveled by foot, ski and raft over 30,000 miles.  He has been named “Adventurer of the year” by Outside Magazine and National Geographic Adventure and “Person of the year” by Backpacker magazine.  And he’s also an ultra-runner with top 3 finishes in a couple of the big 100 mile races.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • Learn about his Alaska/Yukon hike which covered over 4,700 miles in the frigid temps of the Alaskan backcountry without using any trails or guidebooks.
  • How he learned to follow his heart and pursue happiness despite all the pressure from family and friends.
  • “Fun” is when you’re pushing yourself to the limit, both physically and mentally.
  • It’s not just about the destination but the journey that matters.
  • The key to accomplishing something incredibly challenging is to simply start small and figure things out one step at a time.
  • How he feels so strongly about his expeditions that he’s willing to risk his life.
  • The steps he took to turn his passion into a full time career.

 

You’ve likely heard of the Appalachian Trail (commonly called the A.T.), a 2,200 mile trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It’s considered the granddaddy of long distance trails and quite an impressive feat if you can hike the entire thing.  Andrew knocked that one off just for fun one summer during college.  And he loved it.  It was at that moment that he knew he was hooked.

But always seeking a greater challenge to push the envelope, he later hiked a 7,800 mile Sea to Sea trail connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the northern United States.  That’s the equivalent of doing the entire A.T. three times over and then throwing on another 1,200 miles for good measure.  What’s even more amazing is that this incredible accomplishment wasn’t the culmination of a long hiking career, but rather, just the beginning of it.

Never wanting to stay too long in his comfort zone, he would continue to discover and conquer even bigger challenges. When marked trails became too boring, he bushwhacked his way in the untouched backcountry.  When the weather became too comfortable, he moved his expeditions to regions with sub-zero temperatures.  And when hiking wasn’t enough, he added skiing and rafting to the mix.

You might be wondering how in the world someone can balance these multi-month expeditions with a career.  The answer is simple.  These adventures are his career.  He’s figured out how to monetize his passion and feels anyone can do the same if you’re entrepreneurial and resourceful enough.

It was in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains over the summer during college when he was first exposed to people who were living life much more spontaneously and pursuing happiness above everything else.  Life was about climbing mountains and running rapids, not about pursuing careers and accumulating wealth.  That was when he had his first aha moment.  That’s when the tired cliché “life is short” came into sharp focus.

So instead of caving into the peer pressure and following the herd, he decided to follow his heart.  And he’s been following it ever since.  Have you ever felt such joy and pleasure about something that you’d be willing to risk your life for it?  Very few of us have.  Andrew Skurka has.

Strauss Zelnick is the CEO of Take Two Interactive, a publicly held video game publisher which makes Grand Theft Auto amongst many other hit titles.  He is also the Founder and Managing Partner at ZMC, a several hundred million dollar private equity fund focused on media and communications.  He has also served as CEO of BMG Entertainment, one of the world’s largest music publishers at the time, and President of 20th Century Fox, one of the biggest movie studios.

 

Some interesting insights in this episode:

  • How Strauss successfully climbed the corporate ladder to become the President of 20th Century Fox by the time he was just 32.
  • His approach to turning around one of the largest interactive entertainment companies in the world.
  • Knowing what you want out of life and setting goals to achieve them is a big part of success.
  • To achieve great things, it’s sometime necessary to take calculated risks.
  • Being smart and ambitious is nice but being in the right place at the right time also helps.
  • Learn to put your ego aside, surround yourself with super ambitious and talented people and then step out of their way.
  • Motivation should be driven by the joy and fulfillment it brings, not by money or ego or power.
  • Leadership is about being your authentic self. It’s best to present yourself all the time as you truly are, not as you wish to be seen.
  • A consistent and strenuous physical fitness routine can have positive spillover effects in your working life.

 

Strauss Zelnick has had a remarkable career.  His ambition and passion for entertainment can be traced all the way back to his childhood when he declared that he would one day run a movie studio.  He graduated with double MBA/JD degrees from Harvard and less than a decade later at the young age of 32, he achieved his childhood dream by becoming the President of 20th Century Fox.  It was this amazing achievement that rightfully earned him the moniker wunderkind.

When he acquired Take Two Interactive, the company was a mess.  They had just lost over $200 million and the CEO had been fired for fraud. Less than a decade later, he’s still running the company which he completely turned around while creating billions of dollars of value in the process.

It helps when you can figure out where your passion and talents intersect.  He loves the entertainment business and is most effective and happy as a turnaround executive.  He’s also self-aware, knowing where his true strengths and weaknesses lie.  He has learned that being your authentic self and not hiding behind a façade is one of the keys to being an effective leader.

Recently Strauss has become as passionate about fitness as he is about buying and turning around companies.  He founded a daily fitness meetup group called The Program where he does rigorous high-intensity interval training alongside people less than half his age including professional athletes.  He not only appreciates the way it makes him look and feel but also the nice byproduct of enhanced productivity and happiness in the workplace.

Strauss is confident in his abilities but humble in his accomplishments.  He doesn’t downplay the fact that ambition, goal setting and risk taking are among the key ingredients to success but also acknowledges that serendipity has a vital role to play as well.  If you congratulate him on all his success, he’ll quickly point out how there are others a lot more successful.   I guess it’s a testament to how life is relative.

While early on his career moves might have been on autopilot, now in his late 50’s, he has become more reflective as a leader, as an individual.  He’s now at a point in his life where he knows what’s truly important to him.  And ultimately that’s about discovering happiness.  And from my brief hour-long conversation with him, I can see that he’s definitely found it.

 

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