Mark Levy, the Founder of Levy Innovation, talks about the importance of finding your purpose, which is called your why, and making that your differentiator.
How are your customers’ lives better because of you? If you’re ready to dig deep for an answer that sets you apart from the competition, you don’t want to miss my interview with Mark Levy, founder of Levy Innovation.
Mark Levy, the founder of Levy Innovation, has consulted some of the world’s most prominent CEOs and thought leaders, including Simon Sinek of Start with Why, and helped them differentiate themselves with a big idea that sets them apart.
In this episode, Mark shares the importance of finding your purpose, your “why,” and making that your differentiator. Through riveting anecdotes of clients he has worked with, Mark explains why most companies fail to differentiate themselves and offers practical tips on how to define and articulate your “why” to the world in ways that will transform your business and scale it.
I hope you listen and gain from all the valuable advice Mark offers in this episode!
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Finding Your Why And Making That Your Differentiator With Mark Levy
Our guest is Mark Levy. Mark is the Founder of Levy Innovation, a positioning and strategy firm that helps organizations and thought leaders differentiate themselves with a big idea that sets them apart. He has consulted some of the world’s most prominent companies and individuals, including CEOs of major brands and thought leaders including the famous Simon Sinek of Start With Why. He has also authored five books on this topic. In our interview, Mark and I discussed the importance of finding your purpose, which is called your why. Pay attention to how Mark explains how you could find the real backstory even if you’re an existing company, why you started and make that your differentiator. Read as Mark breaks down the steps why most companies fail to differentiate themselves in a crowded and noisy marketplace. Finally, pay close attention to practical tips as to how Mark provides for every business owner to look at how to be different, differentiate themselves and lead with purpose. Without further ado, here is my interview.
Mark, thank you so much for joining me on the show.
Thank you so much, Meny. Thanks for having me.
I got to know about you through a mutual friend, Ramon Ray, who was also on the show. He said, “You’ve got to find out more about Mark.” I did and I was fascinated by so much that you have done in a particular space, which is important for our audience. I felt that to bring no-nonsense advice to our audience, we’ve got to get you on the show. Thank you for that.
Thank you. I’ll try to fulfill the no-nonsense. I do a lot of nonsense, so I apologize ahead of time if there is some nonsense that leaks into my no-nonsense.
We start off with a topic and as we’re going to get into the topic on its own, it is a no-nonsense topic where it’s important as people evolve, as competition grows and so on and so forth. I want to start a little bit going backward. As we speak, you have been working as a consultant with an impressive roster of clients, CEOs of huge organizations, members of the Major League Baseball, some very prominent TED speakers. Tell us a little bit about how you got to this. What was the inspiration to figure out that this is what you’re good at and this is how you’re going to continue helping other companies do?
For several years, I was a salesperson in the book wholesaling business. What we would do is we would buy millions of dollars’ worth of books from the publishers like Simon & Schuster, Random House and so forth. We’d sell them on the phone to independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon and so forth. Over those several years, I helped to sell over $1 billion worth of books. Imagine over and over again, I probably sold about 35,000 different titles over those years. I don’t remember how I came up with that calculation I did a few years ago. Over and over again, I had to look at a book. I had to see how I would describe this book to someone who couldn’t see it? What was interesting about this book? What should make it sell? What ideas were there that should make it sell outside of even what the publisher was saying? Maybe a book that the publisher thought should sell, I thought shouldn’t sell.
I’d have to survey the entire industry, the entire world, these different bookstores and I had to sell all these books over and over again. I’ve got to be good at picking out the differentiation of each book and the story around that book in order to sell it. After several years, I quit that job. I was the director of sales. That was as high as I could go there. I started my own business, which is I’m a differentiation consultant. I differentiate people’s businesses, shows, books, speeches and so forth. It’s essentially looking at what it is you’re doing as if it were a book. That’s how I do it. I say, “Here’s Meny’s business,” or whoever’s listening, “Here’s your business.” In essence, you’ve written a book as an analogy. I’m not saying you’ve literally written a book, but your business or your life is a book. I look at it and I say, “Here’s what the main idea of that book you’ve written is so far. Here are the ancillary ideas and stories. What if I took an ancillary idea or a lesson from a story and I moved it upfront to the fore of that book? Would it sell better?” That’s how I do my work.
Would you say that this is more of an external marketing piece or it is more of an internal piece? What is in that book that’s the gem of the story?
The true answer is it’s both. When you find your differentiation, your differentiation probably shouldn’t be so thin that it’s a marketing gimmick. You want it to be something that’s true to who you are. In essence, it’s something that you were put on earth to do. It both qualifies as guidance for you, spiritual guidance, internal guidance that helps you make decisions and so forth. And it should resonate with the public where they appreciate what it is you’re selling to such a degree because you’re doing what you should be doing. You’re doing what you were put on earth to do.When you find your differentiation, it shouldn't be so thin that it's a marketing gimmick. Click To Tweet
Would you say that that’s what people in the business world call purpose?
Yeah. It’s the purpose, meaning, why — there are a lot of things around it.
Let’s dive in a little bit deeper for our readers and probably if they follow the show or stuff that we do in email and events, we speak a lot about that. It has to start with a vision, purpose, mission, core values and so on and so forth. Because that’s what defines who you are and it also becomes a magnet to potential clients. From your process, sitting with a business owner, let’s say they have a commodity product, how do you go in? Not to give away your trade secrets, but explain to us if the person is sitting now and reading this, thinking about this. What is it that they’re trying to figure out?
It depends on if we’re talking about a product, an entire business or someone’s personal brand. There are different levels to this, but I’ll say whatever comes to mind. Know that when you differentiate, you have to differentiate against something else. That’s what the whole concept of differentiation is about. For instance, if you’re selling a tee shirt and there are white tee shirts out there, to differentiate, you make yours black. If the other tee shirt is short sleeve, yours is long sleeve. If the other tee shirt has writing on it, yours has a picture on it. That’s a very basic idea when it comes to differentiation. Let me ask you, Meny, are we talking about a human being like someone’s personal brand, product or service? What is it that we should talk about?
Let’s talk about a company that either sells a product or service and they’re struggling or every day fighting on trying to beat the competition with price or stuff like that. They should stand for something way more than that.
The first place that I would look at is you want to look at what it is that you’re selling, but in order to differentiate yourself, you need to stand out as different and distinct. It’s about how is your customer going to be different after using your service? Even after you’ve left, you’re gone, you’ve already done your thing. How is their life different? That’s the thing that’s going to most captivate them. That’s one way I look at it. When I’m looking at this stuff, I look at it from a lot of different directions. How are people’s lives different because you’ve been involved? Take your ego out of it and pretend you’re gone. How are they better? How were they better now? How are they better in a continuing way? How were they better internally? How are they better in front of their customers? What are all the ways their life is different and better because you’ve been involved in it? That’s one way I look at it.
Another way that I might look at it is by looking at the reason why the business started in the first place. The back story is important to say context because you want to show that the organization came from a place of merit, it came from a place of use. It wasn’t just about the bottom line or the person who owns the company making money. They started the business for reasons that have merit. A story about such a thing, I know many stories about this. In 1969, there was a sixteen-year-old boy named Michael Kittredge. He wanted to give his mother a birthday present, but he didn’t have any money. He looked around the house to see what he could do in an arts and crafts way. He discovered a big box of crayons, like the 64-crayon box. He took the crayon box. He said, “I can use this for my mother’s gift.” He threw out the box. He peeled off all the paper from each crayon. He boiled all the crayons in a pot. He took a clear mason jar and he poured the boiling wax from the crayons in the mason jar. At the time, that was unusual. You didn’t put crayons in mason jars.
He took a wick and he stuck it in the candle. He had this big, fat and wild candle that he was proud of. One of the reasons he was proud of was it was in this mason jar. That’s odd, but it also smelled distinct, which was unusual for candles at the time. That’s because he used all these crayons and each crayon had a different odor to it, silver, peach and what not. It had this powerful smell. He was proud of what he made, he brought it to a neighbor and he said, “Look what I made for my mother.” The neighbor said, “That’s amazing. Could I buy that from you?” Michael Kittredge didn’t expect that, but he said, “Sure.” He set a price and the guy paid him.
Michael Kittredge took the money that he earned from selling that candle, went to the store and he bought two more boxes of crayons. One he made his mother’s birthday present, he made another candle for her. The other he made the candle and he went and sold that. He took the money and he bought two more boxes of crayons, four more boxes of crayons, eight more boxes of crayons and so forth. That became the beginning of Yankee Candle, which now is a $1.8 billion business. It started that way because Michael Kittredge didn’t have enough money to make his mother a birthday present and he wanted her to celebrate her birthday. When you tell a story like that, especially early on in the company’s history, you’re saying, “This whole business started for the right reason.” It didn’t start because they were looking over what to make in the second quarter, profit sharing and so forth. People want to be a part of a story like that. They want to be part of a story where someone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing for the right reasons.
This is an amazing story and I’m happy you shared it because sometimes those stories get forgotten in the process. If you could keep it alive, this could be your differentiator for the rest of the life of your company.
The reason why you started the company can be the differentiator. You can also take the idea of your backstory and run with it in different directions. Another story, years ago, I had a client named Bill Treasurer. Bill said, “Mark, I’m a management consultant. I do leadership development and team-building workshops. Unfortunately, 300,000 other consultants do exactly what it is I do. When I go into an organization trying to win that organization’s business, I always go in hat in hand, hanging my head because there’s no way of standing out from the other 300,000 consultants. Even when I win that organization’s business, on occasion I win their business, they always get me way down on price because I have no way of holding onto any of the value I had established.” He said, “A top week for me that I pray for is $1,800.” This was several years ago. He said, “I can’t keep going on this way. I have a wife and kids. I need your help.” Bill hired me. I interviewed Bill, his clients and his colleagues. I discovered something interesting.
Bill Treasurer, before he was a management consultant, was a professional high diver in theme parks. He would climb up a nine-storey high radio tower, that’s a ladder standing all by itself, with nothing around it. When he would get to the top of the ladder, he’d spray his body with gasoline, he would light himself on fire and he would dive nine stories into the water. Over the course of several years, Bill did this gig 1,500 times. He was so good at being Captain Inferno that the theme park he worked for named him the captain of an entire team of Captain Infernos that went up and down the East Coast of the United States performing this gig. The most interesting thing about Bill Treasurer is he was and still is afraid of heights. We took the idea that Bill did what he had to do despite his fear and we married it to the fact he did leadership development and team-building workshops. We made his company Giant Leap Consulting.
They build courage in organizations. They help leaders and their employees take the risks they know they should be taking but aren’t. All of Bill’s workshops, all of his coaching, all of his consulting, everything he did started to revolve around ways of driving fear out of the workplace. To quote W. Edwards Deming, “That people could take the most significant risks they had to achieve their top goals.” Bill used to make $1,800, it was a top week. He is now regularly a seven-figure a year guy. He has been for many years. He’s booked months in advance and he’s written a lot of books where leadership and courage go together. The titles are sometimes overtly about courage like Courage Goes to Work. Other times, courage is implied like Leaders Open Doors where you get the idea of courage even if it isn’t mentioned.
The reason why I mentioned that is the idea. If Bill’s story is about courage, he can take that idea in many different directions through many different businesses. You need the courage to take risks in all kinds of businesses. An interesting thing about that story, Bill was not ignorant of the power of his backstory before he and I met. As a matter of fact, he had written a book called Right Risk before he and I ever met that had a photo of him on the cover on fire jumping into the water. The thing is Bill was leading with the wrong idea because he was either leading with leadership development and team building, which is commoditized ideas or he was leading with the idea of risk.
At the time, I don’t think people do things thinking of them as a risk. They think of them as goals that they want to achieve and they need the courage to approach these goals. In other words, people aren’t Googling risk-taking or anything like that. They’re not searching for that. You’re trying to solve a problem that they’re not labeling it as such so they do not see who you are. Even when they see you, they do not appreciate the full magnificence of what you can do for them. You’re a guy who can summon up courage for the most important things in your life whenever it is you want. You’ve demonstrated that over the course of several years. You’re looking through the wrong side of the telescope. You’re looking through the risk side, turn the telescope around. What do you know? It’s the courage to take risks. It’s the opposite of what you’ve been looking at.
This is a great story and I want to ask you a follow-up for our readers thinking about how it applies to them. What difference does it make in the marketplace? What I heard and I want to make sure that I understood this correctly, is that a person doesn’t have to change what they’re already talking about, teaching or doing. It’s a matter of how could you differentiate yourself from within to tell a story that the person listening to you either at an event or somebody that potentially will buy from you will hear something different than they hear every single day.
I’ll say your point is excellent and I agree with you except to add to it, I wouldn’t tie myself down by saying it should only be that. There are different levels of differentiation and some of them are surface and they make a big difference. If everyone sends the product in a brown cardboard box, you could send yours in a green cardboard box or a white cardboard box. That’s one level of differentiation. I’m saying that’s justified. I’m not trying to step on that, but I’m saying who you are and why you started the business—even if you work inside a business—the story about why you do what you do, why it’s appropriate to who you are can be persuasive. If let’s say you’re working inside a company, to use when you’re trying to hire someone as a member of your team. If you’re talking to a customer, it’s like, “We’ve been talking about the business, but let me tell you why this work is important to me,” and then you would tell that kind of story. I’ve seen this stuff.
A story about that, I was speaking at the Javits Center to a room of CIOs. Afterward, one of them came up to me and said, “I know what my backstory is.” I said, “What’s your backstory?” He said, “I was a physics student and I was going to MIT. In high school, I was this physics whiz. I won all the prizes. When I got to MIT, I was failing all my physics courses and I couldn’t understand why. I printed out my transcript and I went to my physics advisor and I said, ‘I’m failing all my physics courses. I’ve never done that before. What should I do?’” The physics advisor took one look at the transcript and said, “Here’s why you’re failing all your physics courses. It’s because at the same time you’re taking too many computer science courses. Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go straight to the bursar’s office with your transcript and I want you to drop every one of your computer science courses so you can focus on physics.”
The guy telling me this story, the CIO, he said, “I didn’t say anything to my physics advisor in the room, but I got boilingly angry that he said I needed to drop all my computer science courses. I held back this rage inside me. I instantly knew what I should do and I went straight to the bursar’s office and I did drop all my classes in one subject, but it wasn’t computer science. I dropped all my physics courses. I was presented with this binary choice, this either-or choice. You’re rarely presented with choices like that. Instantly, I knew what I should devote my life to because the idea that would be taken away from me and it would not be part of my life instantly allowed me to make the decision on what was most important to me.” Imagine him telling that story to his leadership team before a meeting in order to set the context, “Let’s go around the room and talk about why this work is important to us or how we got here.” Imagine him trying to hire someone important for his leadership team saying, “This stuff means so much to me. This is not a job. The thought of being without it makes me angry. Let me tell you a story about that.”
In the last several years, you start hearing this so much more from even large corporations. I listened to a podcast, the CMO of IBM, Deloitte and those larger corporations. How much employee retention, culture and so on and so forth have changed because they started becoming much more purposeful on their purpose. As much as we look at external, even internally, I know even from our company, the Ptex Group, because we are clear on our vision, our purpose, our mission and core values. When we sit with an interview, we could see, “Is this potential candidate somebody that gets excited about the purpose?” We live in a world where people want to belong. They want to be part of something more than the paycheck.You should only be dealing with people whose business is right for you. Click To Tweet
You should look at the purpose the same way. If you’re any type of company, let’s say you’re a web development company and you’re looking at a candidate. If they don’t have web development skills and you’re a web development company and you’re looking for someone with web development skills, you wouldn’t hire them. In the same way, if your philosophy does not excite them, they shouldn’t want to be there. If they were hired on, they’d be there for the wrong reasons and there would eventually be a schism to develop. Related to this is a question I’m asked all the time. When I’m speaking to groups with CEOs and other people like mixed groups, they’ll say to me, “Whose backstory or whose purpose should be at the forefront of an organization?” I always tell them that the founder’s backstory is almost always the backstory of the company. That doesn’t mean that every single person in the organization shouldn’t understand their purpose and be able to talk about it, the story behind it and how it ties into that overall purpose. How your purpose and the organization’s connect.
This is a valid point, especially we have a lot of our readers that are maybe employees in companies or leaders, some managers and so on and so forth. When you get hired to a company and you are excited about the purpose and why the company exists, you will find what difference you make with your action. It could be your secretary, your bookkeeper, your graphic designer, web developer. You have a part in delivering that purpose. The company has a purpose why they exist, but ultimately they want to make a difference in the world. You’re a part of the community that’s making that difference.
Meny, do you feel that we have one purpose or we have many purposes?
You call it a big idea. We have something that’s driving us. I’ll back up to which it was also something I spoke to one of my guests. We spoke about there are the purpose and the vision and then sometimes the vehicle, how to deliver that, changes a little bit. You have to tweak it a little bit, which means you have your backstory and therefore you started selling eggs with the horse and buggy years ago, but as technology and as the world changes, you’re starting to see, “I can make a bigger difference. I could expand my reach.” Sometimes, that will change especially in companies that have multiple divisions, multiple services. They’ll expand on it, but it’s all within the same purpose as to why you started off.
Right. Well put.
I want to dive into a question that probably a lot of the readers are thinking, which is the bottom line of how people want to make money. When we speak a lot about it, how could we deposit that in the bank? You have a purpose. We touched now about the part of how much you get a better-engaged team. You hire the right people because they’re aligned with your vision and your purpose. I know you have a bold statement on your website which reads you have authors, consultants and leaders increase their fees and their services sometimes by up to 2,000%. That’s the bottom line. Connect the dots, how does that purpose translate into somebody paying more for the services?
When you talk about purpose, in other words, if you’re a business person and your purpose is knit into your business like you’re doing the appropriate business for who you are and you let people know the story behind that. You talk about essentially the cause about why you’re doing the business. People will look at you as you’re doing what you were put on earth to do so you’re probably great at it. They want to be a part of that rather than someone who’s just doing whatever for the money at the moment. In talking about your cause, who you’re for, why you’re doing what’s right for you or how you can bring that into someone’s life, into their business. The other person, if they’re the type of person you should be dealing with, they’ll likely want to buy from you. If they’re not the right type of person for you, if they don’t believe in that cause, they probably won’t want to buy from you nor should they. You won’t connect. You should only be dealing with people whose business is right for you. You shouldn’t be twisting yourself into a pretzel in all kinds of different ways in order to appeal to everyone out there. Because then you’ll be corrupting yourself for the actual audience who would be drawn to who you are.
This is something that people don’t realize from the get-go. Once you get ingrained in your culture, ultimately let’s say your salespeople are speaking to leads and saying, “This is what we live, breathe and do all day long because that’s how passionate we are.” The room is filled with that passion and ultimately the person says, “These are people that I want to work with because they’re going to understand the struggle of a small business owner. They’re going to understand how to fix it and how to help me see through whatever challenge I have.” Even if it’s a commodity product, their service will be there because they understand why I need that product and that service.
Often, I don’t know if everyone listening to this can identify with what I’m saying, I’ll speak to someone who I’ve hired to do a specific task. I like what it is that they’ve done so much that I want them to do something that’s somewhat related to that task but not entirely. I want them to do it. Even though there are people who are specifically talking or trying to sell me on the fact that they can do it, I want the person who I know and who I trust that they’re ethical and they know what it is they’re doing. I don’t mind if they go a little out of their comfort zone because I’m betting on them. To me, that’s the idea. I buy into who they are and the purpose is knitted into that. I buy into their ethic, their artistry and what not. I’m happy to hang out with them as they figure it out. As long as it’s something somewhat related. I’m not going to ask a web designer to do brain surgery. I’d ask a web designer to design something else for me that’s not the web, if I trust them.
This is true. I’ll bring it home even a step further, which is I hear from many business owners and they’ll say, “My customers only want to work with me. I can’t hand them off to my team.” Most of the time, it’s going to be because that purpose and passion are there at a high level, but somehow it’s not infused in their team. I could see it in my own team because my team is invested in what we do. They’ll be perfectly fine working with my team. They see it, they get it and they feel it the same way from our team because they are aligned with the purpose of why we’re here to help growing businesses flourish.
I love what you just said. I’m thinking that is one of the best ways for listeners that have problems handing off to someone else because people buy into you and not necessarily into the team. Through the power of story, having a story or two about how each person on your staff, who you’re going to hand off to, how they’ve demonstrated the power of the overarching purpose in their lives. That way, it’s showing them as a fully three-dimensional human being who has higher ideals and not just some cardboard cutout who’s doing this job now but would do a different job later.
You work a lot with speakers and authors of books. One of the familiar names that a lot of the readers might know of is Simon Sinek and his popular book, Start With Why. I heard him speak live. He has a clear message about what he’s delivering to the world and making the world a better place. I know you worked with him on creating his why, but I want to make a point. I think you have probably seen these 1,000 times, which is this idea sitting in somebody’s mind, head, heart, wherever it’s coming from. Sometimes it’s not articulated and it’s not brought out to the world. If you only could identify it and bring it out to the world, you can make the world such a better place. Think about Simon and what he’s done on every single talk he’s done, from the TED Talk, his books and he has touched many lives and he’s made such a difference in the universe. That’s why I feel that what you’re sharing is so important regardless of who you are or where you are in your journey. It’s important to sit down, relax and figure out what is it that you are called to do.
Think about your favorite brand. Why did that brand start? What does it represent to you? If it’s real, what it is. You want that brand. It’s an emotional fit. It takes it out of the realm of some ordinary product or service and it makes it important to you. For instance, I buy a lot of Patagonia clothing. One of the reasons is because Patagonia was started for the right reasons. The guy who started it when he was seventeen years old was rock climbing. This was way back in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. He was rock climbing and when he got off the mountain, he saw how the metal spikes created these fissures in the rock, all these cracks in the rock. He had gone up this beautiful rock face and he had made it look terrible, he and the other climbers. He said, “I love rock climbing but I can’t be a part of this.” He found material that wouldn’t leave a trace in the rock and so forth. The whole company started to develop around that idea of preserving the world, of making the world better while you’re doing what you do. Not to be funny about it, there’s no price resistance with me at Patagonia. When I look at a Patagonia thing, I know how much it costs when I’m at the cash register.
You’ve worked with a lot of different companies in different stages. Is it a different process for a company that’s just starting or a company that already exists in the marketplace trying to figure out their positioning?
With a company that’s already big, that’s already there and substantiated, there are a lot of things that they have to hold onto because they don’t want to appear strange like suddenly dropping all kinds of ideas, products and services. There’s often a lot of stuff that has to stay in place because they have stockholders, they have all kinds of things. You can still do amazing things with a company like that, amazing changes. Usually when a company is more beginning, everything is much more malleable. Everything is much more up to grabs. In general, regardless of whether you’re a beginning company or a long-established company, it almost always starts with why did this thing begin? Why did it start?
Sometimes the people I’m talking to who are the founders don’t fully know. Often, they’ll start by giving me an answer that’s professional, but it’s not honest. They’re not lying to me on purpose. It’s that they’re not truly telling me why it started because they don’t trust me yet or maybe they haven’t thought about it themselves. They’re giving me something that makes them look professional and put together or whatnot. I have to keep on questioning them from different angles to get to what’s true. A related point to that is an important part of your product services, but also how you advertise is you want to use what’s honest. I know certain things sound like you should be saying them and they should be professional, but the honest thing is what works.
I remember I was working with a client of mine who was one of the top innovation consultants. He had written a blog post and he sent it to me because he wanted me to critique it. I looked at it and I said, “This line here, you say great leaders always ask themselves this question before they make a decision.” I don’t remember what the question was. I said to him though, “That question sounds dramatic like it should be true, but I know a lot of great leaders and I don’t think almost any of them ask themselves that question before they make a decision. What’s going on here?” We spoke about it and I said, “Put in the real thing. Put in what’s honest.”
The reason why I’m telling you this story is the guy who I’m talking about took it to such extremes that the next day he sent me an email and it had four attachments to it. He said, “Mark, here are four blog posts I had written before you and I spoke. I went through them and I edited out all the lies. Can you read through them please and tell me if I missed any?” I will always remember that. Sometimes with my clients, they’ll say stuff to me. I’m super nice with them. I’m not nasty or anything, but I’ll say, “I don’t believe what you just said.” I’m not talking about tearing your soul out. It’s not psychoanalysis or whatnot but it’s like, “Get to what’s true, not what sounds good.”
Have you seen in your past a company that may have lead the market for a couple of years without being purpose-driven and then eventually transformed?
I can’t think of any right off the top of my head. I’m sure it’s possible. If they do such a thing, they probably have to talk about why the transformation happened. Transformation is going from one state to another state. Transformation is not starting from nothing. That’s not a transformation, that’s creation. If you say you’ve transformed, you need to talk about what the state was that you transformed from. We’re talking about purpose and all these things, but even from a sales and marketing standpoint, from a less grandiose standpoint.
Sometimes people say, “My pitch is not working,” and they’ll tell me their pitch and I’ll say, “We don’t know where the audience started from. The transformation doesn’t have any impact on us.” I remember once I was talking to someone who said that he was some executive VP or senior VP for a multibillion-dollar firm. He said something like, “I’m the VP of a division of this firm. We’re worth over $800 million.” I remember thinking myself, “How much was your division worth before you got there? $799 million?” What do I care about how much you’re worth? To know what you did, I need to understand better the transformation from what to what.When you act bold, it means you're coming to the fore and you’re taking action. Click To Tweet
It brings me to my next question. We live in a world with so much noise out there. Every company is trying to differentiate itself. In your opinion, what is the biggest reason businesses struggle with differentiating themselves in the industry?
I would say that the problem is that they’re afraid to stand by something honest or something unique. I talk to people and I say, “If you want to differentiate, understand what differentiation is.” Differentiation is you’re going to stand out. Sometimes they only look at differentiation like it’s all great concept. It’s only great and it means we’re going to dominate. I want you to understand that if you differentiate in the proper way, you aren’t going to stand out as unique. That means everyone’s going to see you and sometimes when people think of it that way, it becomes less appealing because often understandably, standing out is amazing and also frightening.
You mentioned honest and unique, I would add bold. People are afraid of boldness.
That’s well put. Why do you think that is?
I think because people are afraid of, “What if it’s going to fail? I’m too bold. I’m too different.” Because of that, they rather will be a me-too product, a me-too type of company that could blend in.
Also, when you act bold, it means you’re coming to the fore and you’re taking action. If something fails, it looks more like you’re the cause of it because you took action. Whereas if you sat passively back, you’re probably still the cause, it’s just that you can pretend it wasn’t you because you didn’t take any action.
Everything in life is risk and reward. If you’re a risk-taker and you come out stronger, ultimately you have a chance of success, the reward is higher. You do a lot of magic trick shows. You’ve been doing this for many years, over 5,000 performances.
That’s a show that I co-created. I’m not the performer. To set the context, I’ve loved magic since I was four years old, and I’m now 56. I’ve written magic books, I perform magic, I create magic tricks, magic shows and so forth. One of the shows I co-created with my best friend, Steve Cohen, The Millionaires’ Magician Entertainment for Exclusive Events. We co-created together a show called Chamber Magic, which is a magic show that’s run in New York City for many years to over 500,000 people in 5,000 performances. People like Warren Buffett, Stephen Sondheim and Woody Allen. There’s even a Chamber Magic Day by proclamation of the mayor in New York City. That would be an example.
Not only did I co-create the show and the magic tricks themselves, but I created Steve’s, The Millionaires’ Magician, his differentiation. Many years ago when he came to me, he said, “Mark, I’m not standing out the way that I should. I’m being paid $500 for doing ordinary gigs, but I’m better than that.” I looked at Steve, who he was and I looked at the marketplace. I saw what other magicians were claiming. I said to him, “Steve, there’s a spot in the market that I don’t see anyone has claimed and that’s doing magic tricks for the filthy, decadently rich, not just people with money, but people with insane amounts of money. You have the ability to do such a thing.”
We changed everything in his show, the way he dressed, the tricks he did, the patter, the locations. We changed everything around the idea and we made him Steve Cohen, The Millionaires’ Magician Entertainment for Exclusive Events. That was many years ago. All these years later, he’s made millions and millions of dollars and has entertained. I was with him in Connecticut. He won yet another award. I’ve been to these award ceremonies where he wins these awards. He’s amazing. He’s everything he should be. He’ll be the first person to tell you and there’s also differentiation involved in such a thing. Because knowing that he was The Millionaires’ Magician Entertainment for Exclusive Events, charging $20,000 or more for a show, that had to change how he would approach a performance.
Are you actively still doing anything in the magic world?
Yeah. I’m always involved with that show, occasionally if there’s a new trick, new idea or new performance. Steve will say, “I’m going to be on the X TV show. What kind of trick do you think I should do?”
Let’s close with four rapid-fire questions. What’s a book that changed your life?
There was a book called The Creative Attitude by an artificial intelligence scientist Roger Schank. It got me to understand how to question things and then look for the anomaly inside an idea because the anomalies are where the action is.
What’s a piece of advice that you got that you’ll never forget?
I was once on a radio show and I wasn’t saying anything because another person was speaking quite a bit, as they should have, but I wasn’t butting in. The producer came over to me and said, “Mark, you’re not saying anything. Why aren’t you saying anything?” I said, “I don’t want to seem rude. The other person’s talking, I don’t want to butt in.” The producer said to me, “Mark, you’re in charge of your own experience.” They walked away and it was a different show after that.
Is there anything you wish you could go back and do differently?
I would probably do a lot more magic myself.
What’s still on your bucket list to achieve?
I think that I want to see the Seven Wonders of the World.
Mark, thank you so much for joining us. I know your time is valuable and that is why in the name of our readers, we will forever be grateful for sharing some of your time with us.
Thank you. Thanks to our audience for reading.
- Levy Innovation
- Start With Why
- Ramon Ray – past episode
- Yankee Candle
- Giant Leap Consulting
- Courage Goes to Work
- Leaders Open Doors
- Right Risk
- Ptex Group
- The Creative Attitude
About Mark Levy
Mark Levy was born in Flushing, Queens in 1962, and lived in spitting distance of Shea Stadium. He was frightened of public school, loved playing baseball and football, ran home to watch ape films on the 4:30 Movie, listened to The Jam and The Buzzcocks, and read magic trick books.
At 18, he went to Queens College –- a school whose most notable scholar is Jerry Seinfeld. Mark enjoyed college, because he got to pick his own subjects. Instead of Math, he took a course in which he analyzed monster pictures. Not surprisingly, Mark received excellent grades, and graduated with a Magna Cum Laude writing degree in 1985.
Outside of college, no one cared that he could analyze monster pictures, so he became a bookstore clerk. That started his long affiliation with the book industry. He moved from retail to publishing, and from publishing to wholesaling.
Along the way, he was steadily promoted, and became a sales manager, a director of special projects, and helped his companies sell over one billion dollars worth of books. He was nominated three times for The Publishers Weekly Rep of the Year Award.
Why was Mark so successful at selling? One of his colleagues said it best (and she didn’t mean it as a compliment): “When you think a particular book is important, you’re messianic about it. You won’t stop.”