4 Steps for Building a Speaking Business That Outlives You
Bill Brooks, CSP, CPAE, began his career as a college football coach. He was at his happiest when he played “coach” to other speakers by offering them advice on how to grow their own speaking businesses. It’s in that spirit that I share our story.
Back in 1977, Bill — my father — started a part-time speaking business. Thirty-five years later, The Brooks Group is an award-winning global sales training and assessment firm with a team of people throughout the world who continue to share his high-impact message of professional, customer-focused selling. It wasn’t always smooth, though. We were in Las Vegas on March 26, 2006, and something was wrong. This was the last stop on a 10-city tour. He had been doing great work until that day. He was delivering a lunch keynote and something just wasn’t right. He wasn’t on his game. Later that afternoon, when we were sitting on the plane heading back home, I asked him what happened. “I just don’t feel right,” he somberly said. Sure, the client was happy, but he and I weren’t. We knew something was out of place. Three days later my father, the legendary speaker, was in the hospital. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Eighteen months later — on October 27, 2007 — he died.
He was The Brooks Group’s brand. He generated most of the income. Without him, surely the company and all of us would be in real danger. Right? Our worlds had been rocked. The questions came fast: What happens when the founder and CEO of a 25-person company can’t generate any speaking fees? How do we earn income? How do we survive? Who do we tell? What do we say? Fortunately, as early as 2005, Bill recognized the threat a personality-driven business presented. He began taking measured steps to reduce the risk. As he was fond of asking rhetorically, “How do you pay the bills if you’re a speaker and you break a leg?” The transition wasn’t just financially driven. He also realized that the impact of his message was limited if he was the only person delivering it. We were fortunate because he took four specific steps that have enabled us to keep the doors open. Not only that, but the business is on track to break records in terms of both finances and client results this year. We are all confident that he would be intensely proud. Here are Bill’s steps for creating a business that lasts.
Step #1: Make a Plan (And Share It)
According to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study, slightly more than one in four business owners intend to transition their businesses to someone else in the next five years. More than 50 percent of those owners believe their companies will stay in their families. Unfortunately, two-thirds of these companies never make it. Instead, they’re lost, bankrupted or dissolved. Even with those sobering statistics, less than half of business owners have a succession plan. That’s too bad, because simply taking the time to develop one can make all of the difference. The lesson? Plan for what happens if you’re gone.
Regardless of your plan — whether you intend to involve your family or sell your business — there are several unique characteristics of a speaking business that must be considered to make it “transitionable.” Who would want your business? Why would they want it? What would they acquire? What kind of recurring revenue does it generate? Who would own your content? How much debt do you have? The questions go on and on. It’s important to speak with competent accounting and legal experts about these questions and many others. There are complicated tax and estate-planning issues to consider. Perhaps most significantly, it’s important to involve everyone in your family in those discussions. Even if you think there are members of your family who have no interest in your business, involve them. If you don’t, it can and will create serious problems down the road.
Step #2: De-Personify the Business
There’s no doubt that many — if not most — of your clients buy from you because of your unique personality. Most speakers are proud of the fact that they are their greatest assets. However, to make your business “transitionable,” it’s necessary to make it about more than just you. Of course, there are many examples where this advice doesn’t stand. Consider Marriott, Disney and Ford, to name a few. But, in our case, when Dad was no longer able to speak, the business could no longer be about him. To continue, we had to engage in a very intense branding effort to shift the focus from him to the business. In 2006, the most common search term that led prospects to our website was “Bill Brooks.” Today, it’s a generic one related to training. Effectively taking your personality and extending it onto a business is a critical (perhaps the most critical) component of your transition.
In short, no one can profit from your personality if you’re not around. You must transition your name into a brand. How does this happen? One of the best ways to de-personify your business is to highlight the company’s message through processes and products.
Step #3: Sell a Process and Product
Selling a process means you have a repeatable offering. In our case, each client engagement involves five steps. We can repeat those five steps every time no matter when, where or with whom we’re working. First, we assess a project. We then design a solution. Third, we deliver it. Fourth, we reinforce the project. And, finally, we measure it. Straightforward? Yes. Simple? Perhaps. But it’s the process that Bill Brooks followed when he put together a training engagement. Today, it’s the process that everyone within our organization follows. And we all know where we fi t in it. If you’ve been a member of the National Speakers Association for more than a week, you know how important products are.
At The Brooks Group, we “live and breathe” them. After all, they not only extend our impact, but they also present an additional revenue opportunity. Bill Brooks built products with fervor. He created an inventory of products that rivaled an 1897 Sears Catalog. His goal was to see a revenue split of 75 percent product to 25 percent speaking fee. It was aspirational, to be sure. But he came close, and that split really helped carry us past his death.
Step #4: Make it Scalable
The final step my father took was to make the business scalable. In our case, that meant making each revenue source easily repeatable. In other words, he broke his role into its component parts and divided it among others. This is about more than hiring an assistant or a salesperson. A typical speaker does a lot. They research, write, market, sell, bookkeep, troubleshoot, design, plan, strategize and speak. It’s a tough job! And the people who can do it all are very often doing it all! In other words, it’s difficult to hire more of you. To scale your business, it’s necessary to find others to take on roles for you. Hiring people who are smarter and more qualified than you are is vital. We have a saying here at The Brooks Group, “Hire slow, fi re fast.” Careful hiring means getting to know a new hire before bringing them on. Speakers tend to have a great deal of empathy and, as a result, are willing to give someone a chance first and ask questions second.
At The Brooks Group, we hire salespeople, curriculum designers and facilitators who all work together to deliver a program that makes a difference for our clients. Each department has budgets to hit. All of us at The Brooks Group are accountable.
A Legacy Business
Before taking these steps, decide whether you want a legacy business. Many great speakers have no desire to leave something behind other than their message. There is nothing wrong with that approach. However, if you’re a speaker who wants to build something that outlives you, it’s important to begin now. Start planning, de-personifying your business, selling process and product, and making it all scalable. Once you do that, you’re well on your way to leaving a lasting legacy so that your message can be shared for many generations.