Can someone teach you about business success without having done it themselves? This seems to be a big question, these days, as workshops and 1to1 mentoring become a popular way to monetize experience. (Full disclosure: I do both)
In my mind, the simple answer is No. (Actually NO! I discussed some of this in a recent post titled Knowing Ain’t Doing on the Startup-Strategy.com blog.)
When I started with Pictage in April 2004, the first person who took time to “educate” me about the wedding photography was Gary Fong – who was on the Board of Directors at Pictage, at the time. I will always be indebted to him for explaining in clear, lucid terms, how the wedding industry had changed when digital began to overtake the film workflow. While Gary and I do not always see eye-to-eye on stuff, he recently offered another bit of advice I think is just as insightful and dead-on, and should become a rule in our business.
Basically, and I’m paraphrasing, he said that when evaluating where to spend your money on industry education or leadership… Ask For Proof (of their expertise and how they know the subject matter.)
To this I say “Ab-so-luckin-futely!” In the same way that you must review instructors’ work-product (images) before paying for training or advice on technical matters (e.g. lighting), be equally diligent on asking for that proof when evaluating the “softer” skills, like business workshops or mentoring. If you wouldn’t consider taking an expensive class on capture techniques from someone who doesn’t have any images to show you, why would you take a business class from someone whose has no “proven” successes of their own, either past or present? (I’ve recently heard of someone teaching business success who openly admits their own business is failing. Whassup with that?)
Using me as an example, I am totally comfortable teaching small businesses how to create the fundamentals of business success (Goals, Strategies, Positioning, Unique Differentiators, Execution, Outsourcing, Operations) because I’ve experienced successful creation and deployment of those things in multiple artist-based industries, including this one, both with my own startups and those created by others. Follwing that logic, I would NOT be a good choice for How to Shoot, or anything that dealt with capture techniques. (The closest I get is doing Fusion classes, where I’m really an evangelist and talk about the ways to get PAID for it, rather than create it.)
And, also know that “proof” is kind of slippery. There are really three kinds, Social Proof, Paid Proof and Real Proof.
- Social Proof is when other people tell you how great the service or product is, offering their subjective opinions. This is often an evangelist or endorsement from someone who has experienced the class or teaching as a student and wishes to report their positive experience or results.
- Paid Proof looks a lot like Social Proof (and sadly, its often pitched that way) but differs in that the endorser has received money and/or free services in exchange for their positive endorsement. While their opinions may be authentic, IMHO this type of one-hand-washes-the-other arrangement makes the endorsement suspect (at best) and must be discounted, accordingly. (When you see peeps giving glowing reviews, ASK whether they were given free stuff to say that – I think you’ll be surprised at how often this occurs.)
- Finally, there’s Real Proof. This is objective, indisputable examples of results. Again, using myself as an example, I’ve created 3 technology startups (2 sold for a profit), worked on turning around 3 others (2 successes, 1 failure), and, most frequently and directly, as head of sales & marketing, helped Pictage grow from ~6MM to ~30MM is revenues between 2004-2007. As a demonstration of what I know how to do, I also created the Pictage forums, user groups and PartnerCon. (FWIW, I did NOT invent Pictage’s greatest one-hit moneymaker – the 2for1 idea. That was Debbie Burns, who worked for me at the time. I was just smart enough to test it. )
Using common sense and a some direct questioning will help you Choose Wisely where to spend your hard-earned money and time. Asking for Proof is a great first step.