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Business & marketing advice, news and features, design inspiration, and the art of gifting.

How to Do Better Business: Van Halen Explains How to Filter Out Bad Business Partners

How can you do better business? Van Halen’s David Lee Roth explains how seemingly absurd demands in the band’s contracts filter out bad business partners.


by Fausto Mendez / photo by Dawn Huczek

    Van Halen’s David Lee Roth was notorious for including absolutely absurd demands in the band’s touring contracts with venues. One famous demand, often called the “No-Brown-M&Ms Clause”, says that a big bowl of M&M’s must be provided backstage for the band, but that part is not so unreasonable. Here’s the kicker. The contracts demanded - under penalty of the show’s cancellation and full compensation to the band - that there be no brown M&Ms in that bowl. Bratty, right?

There’s a Method to David Lee Roth’s Madness

    Upon closer examination, it’s not madness at all. The No-Brown-M&Ms Clause is a strategic business move that protects the band’s personal safety and guarantees each show’s stellar quality. Roth explains how it works in his memoir Crazy from the Heat.

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets.

We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.”

    With massive pieces of equipment and unprecedentedly technical shows, it became utterly critical for the venue staff to carefully follow all instructions. A simple weight miscalculation could easily result in killing the whole band, literally. Overlooking technical requirements could easily result in a poorly produced show that didn’t live up to the band’s standards.

    As a result, Roth had to figure out a way to filter out the irresponsible venues that didn’t pay attention to every detail in the contracts, not just for the band’s safety but also for the band’s success (and ultimately the success of the band’s record label). Roth’s best bet at making sure their venues were responsible enough and professional enough to pay attention to all the details was to make an absurdly stupid but easily verified demand in the contract with each venue. That’s when the No-Brown-M&Ms Clause found its way into the band’s contracts. 

“When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.”

    The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande expands on the importance of the clause and how it saved the band’s life in at least one recorded incident.

"These weren’t trifles … The mistakes could be life threatening. In Colorado, the band found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements, and the staging would have fallen through the arena."

    When the No-Brown-M&Ms Clause first became public knowledge, it’s easy to see why the average person would disregard Roth as being a coked out maniac. On the contrary, his precise demands ensured the band’s success and health to the present day. 

Other Famous Tricks that Filter Out Bad Business Partners

   Henry Ford (or Thomas Edison?) supposedly had a similar trick for filtering out bad hires at his company. He would treat prospective employees to lunch, and legend says that if they added salt to their food without first tasting it, he would ultimately turn them down. The idea is to filter new hires that assume too much. The businessman behind the story changes every time I hear the story, so it could easily by a myth, not true.

    The famous is known for offering prospective employees a big bonus for quitting before they begin their jobs. The point is to filter out hires that don’t know how to identify the better deal. In this case, a quitting bonus is not the better deal.

    Jamie from the Discovery show Mythbusters asks news hires to drill a hole through an x in a wall. He would only hire people that asked further questions, such as, “how big?” 

    If you’ve ever searched for jobs on Craigslist, you may have noticed that some employers ask candidates to include a specific phrase in their cover letters. The goal is filter out new hires that don’t read the job listing from top to bottom.

What’s my Filter? I Test Writing Skills.

    In my own life, I carefully examine people’s writing ability and general communication skills, so I often ask folks to initially contact me by email. The goal is to filter out people that don’t remember basic skills or never cared to learn the fundamentals.

    If you can’t write a simple sentence with perfect grammar, what else didn’t you care to learn? If you can’t write, do you even care about your education? I don’t care if you can code a whole e-commerce site from scratch if you can’t clearly and easily communicate with me.

    Similar to Roth’s No-Brown-M&Ms clause, the test also filters out folks that don’t pay attention to simple details. It also makes it easy to identify people that aren’t self aware. Too many spelling and grammar errors make you look really bad, and if you can’t see that, you’ll never see my vision.

    It takes critical thinking and organizational skills to put together a well-written piece of text. The writing-skills test has never failed me, and whenever I overlook a candidate’s writing ability, it always comes back to bite me. How do you test potential business partners and prospective hires?

How to Run Killer Trade Shows: Get Fans to Brandish Your Promotional Swag with a Scavenger Hunt & Social Media

We introduce a new strategy to flood trade-show floors with fans brandishing your logo. Bonus: get exposure on social media at the same time!


By Fausto Mendez / Original Photo by Scott Swigart

    Promotional giveaways are an excellent way to advertise your brand at trade shows, but the vast majority of the time, they are tucked away into bags and backpacks, never to be seen again. Avoid that problem and maximize brand awareness with your limited budget by carefully planning a more strategic giveaway campaign. Today’s tutorial leverages a scavenger hunt and social media to flood trade-show floors with fans that brandish swag with your logo. 

    We previously covered a very different strategy with a focus on apparel, though it achieves a similar goal. But this new strategy incorporates a variety of promotional items that feature your brand name, so you’re not limited to just apparel. Here’s the plan.

How to Put Your Logo on Everyone

    You can get a lot of people to rush around the show floor in your shirts - carrying your bags, using your pens, brandishing your notebooks and other swag -  with a well-planned scavenger hunt that features a few grand prizes for the best players. You will, of course, have to advertise the scavenger hunt ahead of time in your regular marketing channels, including social media; otherwise, nobody will know about it.

    Start by posting the rules and requirements of the scavenger hunt on your social media channels. The first requirement should be to find follow/like/fan your most relevant social media channel. That could easily be Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Google+ for most companies. The second requirement should be to find one of your promotional shirts (or tote bag) at the trade show, put it on, and post the photo to your most relevant social media channel. 

    In this day and age, you should cleverly add a healthy dose of social media into all of your marketing campaigns, especially your presence at trade shows. In this case, I recommend using social media as the way to record each participant’s collection of the items to be found in the scavenger hunt. It’s best to use your own promotional items, such as pens with your logo, as the items for the scavenger hunt, but you can also throw in some items from sister companies or other companies that you work with.

    You should also mix in visually spectacular elements of the trade show show as items to be photographed - such as a celebrity, an impressive booth, a video presentation, a performer, a concert, a keynote address, a work of art, etc. - in order to make the participants feel like it’s not just one giant advertisement for your brand. And the reality is it is one giant advertisement for your brand, but the key is to make it feel like it’s just a fun game for attendees of the trade show.  

    Most major trade shows occur over several days, so it’s best to break up the scavenger hunt into “rounds”, one round being one day of the show. That allows players to feel like if they don’t do well one day, they still have the opportunity to win the next day. Each round should feature a few grand prizes for the best performers, and there should be one final grand prize for the best performer of all rounds. 

Example: Scavenger Hunt for a Fashionable Bag Maker at CES 2014

    For this example, let’s pretend that we’re a fashionable bag & case maker for gadgets and laptops, and we’re attending CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) as an exhibitor. Your most relevant social channel is Pinterest, so we require all players to record their collection of items by pinning the items to two boards on Pinterest. The first board is our own company board. The second is the player’s own board, specifically dedicated to the scavenger hunt. That’s is how you’ll verify items for the hunt. 

    Let’s pretend CES occurs over three days in 2014. The first day, you post the item list on pinterest. The item list is shared and re-shared by fans at the show, and it includes a good mix of hidden promotional items, shoutouts to partner companies, and fun sights and activities that should be experienced by attendees of CES. 

    Your promotional items should be relevant to your fans, so avoid items that your fans don’t care for, and you’ll have to hide them at different parts of the show, including no more than one or two items at your booth. As a result, you’ll have to pull some strings and favors to get other companies to allow you to use their space for your scavenger hunt. But that shouldn’t be too hard if you’re sending traffic towards their booths. If you ask very nicely and present a good case for why it benefits them, you may be able to use their space to hide some of your stuff; however, if you’re presenting at CES, I’m sure you have at least a few connections, such as partners or suppliers, at the show. Leverage your connections as well.

    You should incorporate time-sensitive experiences and items into the hunt, so eager hunters can’t finish the whole thing too fast. The key is to make the hunt last the whole day. Usually, at least a few attendees visit CES as announcers or promoters, so capturing a shot with one of them would be a fun item for the list. Flashy keynote addresses, important video presentations (such as the trailer for a new game), concerts and performances are also great ideas. 

    Make sure that you throw in at least one or two items or landmarks that aren’t directly on the show floor to get folks visiting the outside area, if it’s worth visiting. CES is held in Las Vegas, so that’s a no brainer. A famous statue, hotel, sign or art piece should be easy to find and photograph, so use a few landmarks as items for your list. 

    You’ll end each day by posting a new item list for the following day and by announcing the winners, which are the players that found the items first. In order for a player’s list to be evaluated, he or she should visit your booth, and you’ll have an employee review the player’s items. If it is determined that the player won, he or she will take the prize right there and then. Of course, you’ll capture a photo with of the winner and prize, and you’ll post that to your social media channels. The player, of course, must be wearing your promotional shirt and/or bag the whole time. You might also award a larger grand prize to anyone that wins more than one day. 

The Results

    If you play your cards right, the end result should be a ton of people running around the show floor in your promotional shirts and/or other promotional apparel, finding and keeping promotional items that feature your brand or the brand’s of other companies that you’ve partnered with. The sheer spectacle of the hunt will shine a giant spotlight on your brand during the show, attracting the attention of the media, potential customers, skilled professionals that need jobs, and future partners. And, of course, you should receive a lot of social media engagement.

Marketing Major Asks Reddit: “Is a Marketing Degree What I Need?” - #MarketingMonday

A Reddit user asks marketing professionals to comment on the viability of a marketing degree. I offer my thoughts on that, coupled with advice on how to choose a degree that actually boosts your marketing career.


By Fausto Mendez

    During my morning Reddit reading spree, I came across a thread by a college student that recently switched his major to marketing. He asks, “how viable is it as a degree, or is it a bit common?” He’s trying to plan out a career in marketing, specifically in the finance industry.

    I can’t comment on the popularity of marketing degrees, but I am a marketing professional. I can comment on what I’ve seen from my perspective.

    I’m currently the Director of Marketing at, and to be honest, I’ve never worked with anyone that actually has a marketing degree (as far as I know). I’ve worked with a wide range of majors, including artists, software engineers, accountants, IT pros, and more, but never a marketing major. We sometimes work with an advertising consultant, and he is not a marketing/advertising major. I also know a marketing manager at Disney, and his degree is not directly related to marketing too.

    However, my perspective is rather limited. I’m not even 30 yet (still have three years to go). Plus, I only have about two years in a management role. Fortunately, I’ve seen others climb the ladder, so I do have an opinion on how you should choose your major for a marketing career.

How to Plan College for a Successful Career in Marketing

    It all starts with your passion. The best marketing professionals are passionate about what they do. Whether they’re graphic artists or data analysts, their daily work excites them. Focus on a major that excites. 

    Next, refine your passion to a set of specialized skills. Your major should help you develop a set of specialized skills for your chosen marketing field. If you love to illustrate, you should major in graphic design. I’m a writer at heart, so I majored in English. Do not choose a degree in marketing as you won’t have a more refined specialty, and gigs that require specialty skills are more abundant . 

    Your major should help you refine your specialized skills, but don’t become too reliant on school. There’s a lot that school can’t teach you, so your best bet is to supplement your studies with internships, community service and real work. I started my sophomore year as a professional blogger. This added  invaluable real-world experiences alongside everything I was learning in class.

    Use your specialized skills to get your foot in the door at the marketing department in your company of choice. For me, this meant getting hired as a low-level copywriter and social-media guru. My organizational skills and leadership qualities made it really easy to move up the ranks to a management position, so it was only a matter of time.

    If you can squeeze into a startup company, you’ll move up the ranks more easily because the company is (supposed to be) growing. So your bosses will prefer managers that know the company well, especially if you know your department and co-workers better than outsiders. 

Advice from Other Marketing Dudes

    As I mentioned above, my perspective is really limited, so you should probably look into the opinions of other marketing professionals. Below, marketers that also happen to be Redditors chime in with their opinions in the same thread.

    A successful marketer with an MBA in marketing strategy had no trouble breaking into a marketing role. He sees Bachelor degrees everywhere but very few MBA degrees anywhere.

"I work a lot with advertising agencies and while there are few MBAs there, there are many undergrads. I do think it’s a difficult career, though, especially if you’re someone who’s more into the numbers than the creativity."

    Another successful marketer experienced great success from an internship at a B2B company that makes adhesives. This company did not have an official marketing department, but he came on as a marketing intern. During his stay at the company, he made his work indispensable to the growth of the company.  

"As an intern, expect to get grunt work that makes someone else’s job easier. You’ll be ‘greasing the wheels’ to make sales, negotiations, etc, easier for the people who actually handle marketing & sales. If you can prove yourself productive and intelligent, you may be tasked with greater responsibility.

I now have a job at one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. doing digital marketing for various clients. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, easily.”

   One marketing major could not break into the marketing industry, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t successful.

"I got a marketing degree, just graduated this past May. I am a supervisor in a factory, making great money. A degree is a degree, you can spin your degree anyway you want to get the kind of job you want to have."

   In similar fashion, another Redditor passes on sage wisdom from his career counselor.

"My career counselor said it doesn’t matter what you get a degree in as long as you have a great cover letter."

    Well, it is true that a cover letter can make a massive difference. Honing your writing skills so that you can assemble stellar CVs is critical in any career path. 

    But my favorite career advice is straight out of an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: get a job cannon.


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WTF, Google? What Does the Search Engine’s Massive “Hummingbird” Update Mean for Me?


By Fausto Mendez

    Has Google felt a little bit different lately? On the surface, Google may look like the same, reliable search engine, but under the hood, the company just launched a major overhaul of its search algorithm. And it’s already affecting the way you search.

    Google is constantly updating its search algorithms to better serve the public; most updates barely tweak the search engine’s behavior. However, Google’s latest update - dubbed “Hummingbird” - is a major overhaul, and if you’ve used this week, you’ve already experienced features of the new change. We summarize the update below, the meatier details courtesy of TechCrunch

Presenting a New Focus on Questions & Answers

    Perhaps the most noticeable change is a new focus on questions and answers. Previously, Google Search focused on keywords, but now, Search takes a more intelligent approach to questions. Asking a question results in Google trying to answer it with the most relevant and reliable answers. 


    Furthermore, an update to Google’s Knowledge Graph, which is a database that attempts to store and relate (connect) all kinds of data from various sources, has made the search engine much more effective at comparing and “understanding” data. For example, you could ask Google to compare the nutritional characteristics of broccoli and asparagus, and it should bring up relevant comparison charts, diagrams, Google+ pages/posts and, of course, good-ol’-fashioned links.

    In my test of this feature, I didn’t get any fancy charts or diagrams next to my search results, which is what is supposed to happen (sometimes) if Google understood your question. Fortunately, the first link on the search results did feature a fancy chart. So it looks like the update made the search results more relevant and useful at the very least, but if you’re hoping for fancy charts by your search results, Knowledge Graph may need to grow and “learn” a little more about veggies.

Over 90% Of Searches Affected by the Update

    During Google’s presentation of the Hummingbird update, the company remained quiet on how it all works, but they did mention that about 90% of global searches would be affected by the change. That’s a big percentage for an algorithm update, and that number is absolutely frightening to search-engine marketers as they may have to make big changes to the way they operate, the clients they work with, and the employees they hire. I’m search-engine marketers will ponder it over one too many drinks this weekend.

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Don’t Say These Five Things in Your Next Business Email to Someone Important


By Fausto Mendez

    Encourage intelligent and useful responses in your next business email to someone important by avoiding phrases that miscommunicate your intentions or that make you look like a dumb robotic (thoughtless) employee.

    Business emails are a tricky thing; actually, navigating the social norms of non-business email can be rather weird too. Email culture carries a lot of influence from the good-ol’ snail mail days, and it’s also influenced by well-intentioned manners (or lack of) that can turn fairly standard conversations with important folks into awkward moments of miscommunication. With that in mind, you should probably avoid the following five phrases in your next business email - whether or not the recipient is “important” - in order to sound like a real and intelligent person that deserves a real and intelligent response.

    Of course, you may find that there really are situations in which the following five phrases should be used, but more often than not, they are overused without a second thought - thrown in because we don’t know what else to write.

Don’t Say, “I Hope You Are Well.”

    Please, don’t say this unless you really know the person and actively do things to show that you care because if you don’t actively care, the recipient will assume that you just want something from them. And that’s actually OK, but successful people tend to be very realistic. So if you’re trying to manipulate them, they will sense it right away. After all, they didn’t get to where they are by being naive to manipulation. They don’t like it, and they try to gravitate towards people that don’t try to manipulate them.

Don’t Say, “I Thought I Would Reach Out.”

    Obviously, you had that thought; otherwise, you wouldn’t have reached out. Important people don’t have time for thoughtless conversation. By limiting your email’s content to what is immediately relevant, you show the recipient that you understand how valuable their time is. Important people always value time over anything else, so if you throw in meaningless phrases like this, you are basically saying one of two things: 1. Your time is not valuable. or 2. I’m too stupid to understand how valuable your time is, so I don’t deserve a response.

Don’t Say, “Can I Pick Your Brain.”

    As I noted earlier, there are times when these overused phrases are certainly appropriate, and this is probably one that is harder to misuse. But the reason it’s often misused is not because it’s not relevant, not polite or utterly thoughtless. Actually, it’s misused because you asking for a very important person to spend their extremely expensive time and wisdom on you, not on anything else that he or she would like to get done today. If the recipient is not in a good mood, what seems like a compliment may actually be interpreted as an insult. 

Don’t Say, “Bounce an Idea Off You.”

    This is probably better than “can I pick your brain” because at least you’re going into it with the attitude that you’re going to contribute to the brainstorming that you’d like the recipient to do. It’s not just the recipeitn doing the work; however, it suffers from the same major problem. You probably misunderstand how much it costs for the recipient to do anything for anyone.

Don’t Say, “Sincerely Yours.”

    It’s really weird that we still say this. The phrase really belongs in a love letter, and even just “sincerely” doesn’t sound right. Of course, you are being sincere, so why would you need to say it? The fact is you don’t need to say it, and if you can come up with anything that’s more meaningful or relevant, you’ll probably stand out amongst the other tens, hundreds or thousands of emails that the recipient received today.

    Thanks to Fast Company for the original list of five phrases, but FC’s article didn’t suggest substitutions for these phrases. We offer the following suggestions.

What to Say Instead

    If you’re looking for some good substitutions when avoiding the above phrases, the best thing to do is to say something real. In other words, say something useful or relevant. I might also suggest being entertaining or funny, but that could cause more problems than it solves. If you are not familiar with the recipient’s sense of humor, you should probably avoid humor at all cost.

    More importantly, if you’re asking for something, such as to “bounce an idea off” the recipient, bring something valuable to the table that you can offer in return. I know this can be really hard in some situations, such as when a student reaches out to an experienced executive, but even the inexperienced have valuable info or stories to share. Everyone sees the world from a different perspective, and the important people that you’re trying to reach via email are surrounded by people - more like robots - that never have anything important to share. So you really make yourself stand out if you can offer something useful in return for the favor.

    No matter what happens, you should always thank the recipient for sharing their valuable time with you. That’s actually the signoff I use in most of my serious emails. Later on, I may choose a less serious signoff, such as “may the force be with you”, but I certainly make sure the recipient knows that I know their time is extremely valuable. While the above five phrases can be easily misinterpreted in many situations, thanking someone for their time is always a safe bet.

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When Failure Precedes Success: Tommy Hilfiger’s Life Forever Changed after Bankruptcy at 25


By Fausto Mendez

    Tommy Hilfiger shares details behind his bankruptcy at 25, when he owned several jeans stores under the brand name The People’s Place. He was never the same after this first and major business fail.

    Hilfiger’s initial reaction to his first business fail is humble and eye opening, and it set the stage for his next next business victory.

"We went bankrupt. I was devastated. I was embarrassed. I had started with nothing and worked so hard, and we were so close to making it really big, but I had taken my eye off the ball. I believed that the business would just continue to do well. But it didn’t, because I wasn’t paying attention to the ‘business’ part of the business." 

    As a creative, Hilfiger excelled, but he neglected expense control and the management of big projects with small budgets that bring in big results. Needless to say, he didn’t give up after receiving the bad news. At 28, he started a new clothing design team that eventually landed Jordache as a client. By 1988, he sold over $25 million in product. Today, he expects to pull in over $5 billion in this year alone, but it wouldn’t have been possible without that big first failure.

"My creative side still very much exists. It’s still very important. I use it to create unique designs and clothes. But really, since I was 25, I have viewed myself more as a businessman. That’s made the difference."

    Successful comedians, actors and other performers often have similar experiences at the start of their careers. They call it the first “bomb”. Everyone of them has to experience that big first failure, or bomb, in front a hateful crowd before they will ever develop the skills to succeed. I imagine it’s the same in most industries, and Hilfiger’s story perfectly illustrates that growing process in the real world. 

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