The Business Brickyard – Interview with Howard Mann

I finished reading Howard Mann’s neat little book called “Your Business Brickyard“. Simply put, Howard’s book urges us to look at the basics of our business and succeed. I asked a few questions to Howard about his book and here is the interview.

First, about the Author: Howard Mann


Howard Mann is the president of TBB Partners Inc., a leading strategy, design and communications consultancy based in New York, and a founder of Sideshow Digital, an award-winning interactive agency.

Prior to founding TBB Partners in 2001, Mann was the President of a premier customs broker and international freight forwarder with six U.S. offices and a network of over 35 agents worldwide.


Mann works with a select group of entrepreneurs, business owners and executive teams. His highly focused workshops, dubbed “a day in the brickyard,” help executive teams take the first step in unlocking the true potential of their organizations. Then TBB’s aggressive execution using their design, innovation and communication skills make sure those findings turn into actions that impact the bottom line.

Now, the interview:

RS: Why the title “Your Business Brickyard”

HM: The concept comes from a football practice drill I read about when my College’s team, 20 + years ago, lost a game they should have won because they got caught up in all kinds of fancy moves and forgot that you have to catch the ball first.  The coach made them toss a brick back and forth to each other so they focused on the very basics of catching. He called the drill “The Brickyard.” 

The story came back to me when I found myself running a business in the late 90’s that needed a lot of help. Basically, business was very, very bad. I thought the best plan of attack was to invest in technology to match my competitors, try to gran on to the latest marketing fad,etc…  Then I remembered that image of catching a brick and started focusing on the basics first.  It gave me the sense of control over the business that I needed, got me to focus on our clients instead of our competitors and helped me appreciate what was great about our company vs what was wrong with it. 

Business owners focus a lot of their time trying to find that elusive “secret sauce” or trying to play catch up/”me too” with their competition.  Over time it pushes away the reasons you got into business in the first play and what you should be celebrating about your business is lost.  When that happens, it is time to get back to your Business Brickyard.

RS: Do you find that businesses are really missing the basics?

HM: Maybe not missing them, but they get lost along the way. In the early days of any business you had control over everything so you could make sure it was all handled well. For so many people running a business then becomes that circus act where the performer is spinning a row of plates on thin sticks.  They have to keep moving from plate to plate giving each one a little spin to keep them all spinning.  The problem is that it never ends and little progress is made.  You wind up spending all your time just keeping the plates going.  

Every business person knows the feeling but too many have resigned themselves that it is just the nature of the beast.  What I learned, from mistakes and successes, is that the best way to break the cycle is to get back to the very basics of what you do and figure out how you can do them perfectly. 

Just read a few blogs for a week or so and you will find an array of rants about companies that frustrate their customers and the market by doing the basics poorly.  The Airlines are always a good target. Cell phone carriers are also a good example.  The cell phone companies are working on phones that will make you breakfast but calls get cut off when you are sitting at your desk not moving. The basic purpose of a cell phone is to make a call reliably.  If you don’t get that right first you miss out on delivering that fundamental promise.  We are all so used to getting poor service that we try to focus on something else.  But if you had a cell phone that never got disconnected that would be huge.  If you could call a customer service line and not wait on hold that would be huge. You would love those companies for getting those basics right.  I think that idea has been lost under the sirens of innovation, outsourcing and the like.

RS: And what about purpose? You seem to put a lot of importance on that.

HM: For me, Purpose is the first basic you need to focus on as it the first thing that gets lost as businesses grow and become more complex. Everyone is focused on marketing and taglines. But a purpose is different. It is a simple, and human, statement that talks about why you do what you do and states what the business stands for.

Southwest Airlines has a purpose that could be simply stated as  “We take people from point A to point B at the lowest cost possible.” Simple enough and yet nobody has been able to copy it. They can’t because their purpose is connected to their culture and that is unique to the collection of people that are Southwest. Same planes, same airports but a totally different experience.

So the other important part about finding your purpose is that it honors the people working in the business as much as it does the aspirations of the business.  When you find your purpose it will be something that people will want to work for.  It will give them a sense of purpose. People think about purpose and think it is too “touchy feely” and all they want to focus on is a marketing message that will be a magic bullet.  Done right, a purpose will be far more powerful than any tagline you can come up with and it will endure.  

Taglines are a block to going deeper to find a meaningful purpose.  Someone once told me that taglines are like candy and I totally agree.  They are fun to come up with and there are plenty of them.  The problem with most marketing message and taglines is that they are trying to portray something that the business thinks people want vs expressing something that the business already is.  How many taglines do you hear where you know the employees of the company use it as a punchline?  How many do you hear where you just laugh?  I see the AT&T tagline “Your world delivered” and I have no idea what AT&T is selling.  That could be a tagline for UPS or FedEx as much as it is for AT&T. What does AT&T stand for as a company?  What are they about that I can believe in? They spend tens of millions a year on marketing and advertising and I have no idea why I should love them as a Company. If I knew what purpose AT&T was trying to serve other than beating Verizon and hitting their quarterly numbers I may care about them.   Think of the companies that you love and I’ll bet you have a good sense of what they stand for and what their personality is.  That comes from having a real sense of purpose.

RS: There is a theme about business needing to be fun to run that carries through the book.  Why the focus on fun?

HM: Well, I guess you could say that is MY purpose.  Running my old business took every bit of life out of me.  Wanting it to be more, spinning those plates and trying to match competitors nearly killed the business and did not do good things to me.  But business is supposed to be fun and I forgot that (or nobody ever tells you that). 

When I say fun I am not talking about everyone playing Foosball and kicking balloons around the office.  The actual day of doing business should be fun!  I forgot that and only realized it after the fact. Had I made it fun the result would not have been worse but it probably would have been better.

Owning a business and working alongside people to do some good is an amazing thing.  You have to be excited about it and that has been lost.  When you get back to the basics, are working with a sense of purpose (With people that share that purpose), forget about your competitors and focus on building relationships instead of booking orders then business becomes fun.  While I was going through that whirlwind of turning around my business I also learned 20 years of business lessons in 3.  I felt it would be worthwhile to find a way to help business owners never have to go through what I went through.  That is what drives me because our work completely re-imagines a business to what the business owner dreams it should (And not what we think it should be). The basics are where we start and then we add on the sexy bits of innovation, design and smart marketing to bring it to life. That’s fun.

RS: As you are out speaking to business people, what concerns them the most?

HM: In my talks, I spend some time talking about the importance of paying fast and getting paid faster. I was surprised how much of an impact that concept has.  I get more questions around that topic than any other and, from stories people tell me after the talks, getting paid is a major source of worry and stress.

 There is no simple solution but the first things I tell people is that they are not a bank (unless of course they are).  If they are not a bank then they need to figure out why people are treating them like one.  When you get paid faster then you are paying people you can use your capital to take action during tough times, not become trapped by a bank lending you money and spend a lot less energy chasing people for money.  My Father used to tell me that there is actually ony 1 dollar in the world and we are all just passing it to each other so we have to wait our turn. It feels like that sometimes. Most transactions boil down to a client/customer paying you for something.  Their part of the deal is to pay.   Of course, you have to deliver on your promise as well.  Ironically it comes back to the basics.  Digging deeper with clients I often find that people focus very little on getting paid.  They are often slow at sending invoices out and do very little to collect them until they are 30+ days old.  Changing those base operational procedures makes a big difference.  Now, the other side of that is you should pay people as quickly as possible.  If not, you are passing that stress on to people you buy from and you make yourself less valuable. The other side of that is if you don’t think it is important to pay quickly then why should people pay you quickly.  You get what you give etc.   The balance is to get paid a little faster than you get paid.


RS: Any specific results from clients that have reconnected to their Business Brickyard?

HM: The most recent example was a client that had been focusing a lot of resources on beefing up their technology solutions. They felt they needed to do so to keep pace with their much larger competitors. So the challenge was to figure out what their basics should be.  We put together a dinner with their top clients and asks them why they used their services. Why, out of all the choices they could have made, did they choose our client and why do they stay with them. Not a single one said technology. Talk about an eye opener! What they talked about was personal service, never getting stuck in voice mail and everything that my client was great at but either took for granted or were not focusing on it.  That feedback allowed them to redirect their energies on ways to enhance their level of personal service and, in the process, they found their purpose and separated themselves from their competitors.  Seems simple but it takes getting that outside perspective to see a new approach.  On a bottom line level they grew sales 30-50% in the following year. 

RS: Lastly, why did you decide to give away the book for free?

HM: The point of the book was to make it a short, concise keepsake that would allow you to remember the concepts after you finish the book.  The point is to spread the ideas in the book not to make money from it.  It is my hope that the basic concepts in the book helps a business owner reconnect to their purpose and fall in love with their business again.  The best way to do that is let people who want to read it on their computers get it that way and share it with anyone they want to.  Some people will still want the hard copy keepsake and that is great too.

I was in a meeting with a client that had read my book a month ago and the conversation started getting focused on their competitors and the owner stopped everyone and said “We should not be talking about what our competitors are doing.”   That made the process of writing the book totally worth it. 

eBook Download Link:

Download the book for free here