The Best Business Advice I Ever Received

Image credit: Martin Steinthaler | Getty Images

Image credit: Martin Steinthaler | Getty Images


  • The best business advice I ever received

  • How Tom Redmond used the power of differentiation to build his billion-dollar Aussie shampoo brand

  • How to use cognitive fluency in marketing your product or service    

  • My favorite brainstorming question to generate differentiated ideas

In the interim of leaving New York and founding Ultimate Hoops in Minneapolis, I accepted a handful of freelance writing opportunities. The most rewarding assignment was collaborating on a science fiction novel with Tom Redmond, the maverick entrepreneur and founder of the iconic, billion-dollar Aussie Shampoo brand.

Often after a writing session, Tom and I would relax with a cigar, sometimes a little scotch, and talk business. How lucky was I, by proxy of a writing gig, to pick the brain of one of the best businessmen of the last 50 years.

In a series of these informal, post-writing chats, Tom generously shared his startup stories, all his wins and losses. Ironically, the assignment of writing a fictional novel turned into the greatest business education I ever received. Funny how life works.

In 1979, at age 46, Tom quit a successful health & beauty sales career to start Redmond Products. His first two products did not find a market fit.  Then he took a trip to Australia where he met a Brisbane chemist who gave him a little jar of brown paste made from remedial herbs popular among Aborigines as a hair conditioner.

Immediately, Tom fell in love with the results. He paid the chemist for the formula and then invested $10,000 to get the newly named Australian 3 Minute Miracle to the U.S. market in nine months.

The revolutionary product, combined with Tom's brilliant marketing savvy of using his family, (once dressed in in kangaroo costumes to spoof their company's logo!) in advertising campaigns, helped launch Redmond Products into a major player in the health and beauty industry by the mid-1980s.

I asked Tom what he believed made Aussie work.  Why did it resonate so strongly with consumers? How in a decade did it become a global brand worth billions?

"It was different," he said. Then he tapped out an ash on his cigar, leaned forward and said the words that have inspired my business thinking ever since. It still remains the best business advice I've ever received.

"If you're not different, you're dead."

In the todays marketplace, ambivalence is death. If your idea does not resonate immediately with your targeted consumer, you're cooked. What causes consumer ambivalence? It's often the result of trying to be a fit for everyone. Too many focus groups. Corporate bureaucracy. A lack of confidence in the original idea. 

As an example, today's adult recreational sports leagues are a breeding ground for ambivalence. They are the same animal in different stripes. They play the volume game where success is measured on league size alone. Originality be damned, it's about squeezing in as many games as possible in one night, like running as many dirty vehicles through a car wash as you can.   

League Coordinators at large, multi-court facilities are typically "sports generalists," overseeing a multiple of different sports, often lacking a true passion for a particular sport they are managing. This results in an uninspiring experience and lack of originality.  

Does this mean you need a truly original concept to be successful in the recreational sports business? No. However, you need to have a clear plan on how you will make it significantly better than what you're trying to replicate. Simply replicating another adult rec league down the street and putting your own label on it is not enough.

Why? Consumers are creatures of habit, driven by cognitive fluency, a human tendency to prefer things that are familiar and easy to understand. They will not leave their current product for something similar.

People were using shampoo and conditioner before Tom released his 3 Minute Miracle. The key was how he differentiated the Aussie brand. How they leveraged the Australian backstory of how the product was created. The iconic kangaroo logo. The "can't miss" purple color of the bottles. Tom's idea to use his children, not paid celebrities, in his advertising campaigns to build authenticity with consumers.

As he quipped in 1991, "Does anyone really believe that Farrah Fawcett uses Prell? Give me a break."

But Aussie's success was more than brilliant marketing. It also claimed to deliver results in a simple message to consumers (the power of cognitive fluency)! Aussie's 3 Minute Miracle conditioner, a process that produced beautiful hair in 3 minutes, was an instant hit because it delivered results and its message was simple for consumers to understand.

There were recreational basketball leagues before Ultimate Hoops. But how many delivered online stats and rich media content for the Average Joe rec basketball player in 2006? None. We had our point of differentiation. Then we marketed ourselves as "The NBA of Recreational Basketball Leagues." The bold claim was enough to keep us focused to earn validation from consumers or risk being labeled a fraud. It was like throwing an audacious buoy in a shark-infested ocean and attempting to swim out to it...and live to tell about it.

For the Average Joe basketball player like myself, the message was simple and clear. With Ultimate Hoops, you will be treated like a pro.  It was differentiated and it was simple to understand.


Get started by asking this question

How do you come up with a differentiated idea and a simple message in the sports industry? Try this exercise by asking yourself this question.

What would I wish someone would make for me? 

This question comes from Paul Graham, the successful programmer, writer, and tech investor. It is one of my favorite entrepreneurial brainstorming questions. What is the dream product or service you wish existed for yourself? Is it something you also believe would resonate with others?

Ultimate Hoops was the product I wish someone made for me. I've been obsessed with the game of basketball since I made my first basket at age 6. But my playing career ended at Lakeville High School in 1989 when the final buzzer sounded on our State Regional Championship loss to Owatonna High School. I was depressed for weeks. My basketball career was over. 

Recreational basketball leagues I participated in after high school did little to fill the void. They were ragtag affairs with little organization. Nothing came close to matching my high school experience.

Recreational leagues didn't make me feel special. They didn't offer the illusion I was a college or NBA player. Instead of bridging the gap, they only widened it.  They made me feel even less of the basketball player. Like I should be ashamed for continuing to play the sport I loved after high school.

I wished someone would create a recreational basketball league that made people feel like they were in the NBA! Considering there are over 4 million people who participate in recreational basketball leagues and only 491 on active NBA rosters, I couldn't be the only one who felt this way.   

By 2006, I couldn't wait any longer. I decided I was the one to try and make this happen.   

Is there something stirring in you that you wish someone would make for you? is it reaching the breaking point like it did for me? 

There is another value in asking yourself Graham's question. It's a quick hack to determine what you're passionate about. 

So grab your pen and paper and take a seat. At the top of the page write, "What would I wish someone would make for me?" Then comes the best part...answering the question!