Ten Stories: What Would You Say?

When I was 25, I read ‘What Color Is Your Parachute?’ As a huge fan of the self help genre, and I was in a bit of a career crossroads, so it was the perfect read.

But when I saw how many exercises there were, I only did some of them.

One of the ones I did was writing ten stories about challenges/problems I solved. The criteria were that it didn’t have to be at all work related, just situations that happened and how you solved them. The big idea was within these stories, you’d identify transferable skills and things you not only could do but probably liked to do.

Note: You can pick up a copy of this book but Page 8 in this Google Book version for teens explains it pretty well: (I just found the adult version from 2009 but I have apparently reached my viewing limit so if you find a better source for this, do link it in the comments!)

My first thought was: Ten stories, really!?! That’s so many.

But I’m pretty obedient, even to books, so I went along.

One story was about how, at a moment’s notice and almost nothing in the fridge, I produced an amazing meal.

Another was about how I got double booked for a meeting but made both parties happy.

I have to go in my files for the rest, but none of the stories were long but they started with a problem and ended with a solution and starred me.

Once the stories were written, I was supposed to look for transferrable skills in them. And in doing it for ten stories, you begin to see patterns.

(Note: I wrote three stories then got hung up. Once I realized they could be small, I somehow got unblocked and finished… so if you find yourself similarly annoyed after three, keep going.)

In making this month’s theme ‘storytelling’ at Breaking Even, I thought of how powerful this could be if we translated it to businesses. What ten stories about your business could transform your marketing or help you establish a mission statement or identify core values?

Small stories leading to big ideas? It’s definitely happened before… and it could happen for you.

Buy ‘What Color Is Your Parachute’ On Amazon (Note: This is an affiliate link)

Once Upon a Brand

One of my favorite parts of Mad Men was when they have their brainstorming sessions for a client. A group of people sit around trying to come up with an idea for a print ad, commercial, or tagline. Without being necessarily overt about it, they go through the questions that marketers today ask: who is this for? What problem do they have, and how does this product/service solve it? And, the big one: How do we show them rather than tell them? It all boils down to determining the best story to tell. Clearly this is a watered down summary of Mad Men and I really need to learn how to separate how real life stuff works vs how they happen in the movies, but it’s what comes to mind whenever I think about brand storytelling.

People love stories, and are more likely to remember a story they’ve heard than a statistic (unless it’s really crazy). Exchanging experiences with others is one of the ways we express empathy, which creates a bond among people.

In marketing, it’s a useful way for brands to connect with customers (past, present, and future). It doesn’t always come in the form of selling a specific product- it’s typically much more subtle than that. In fact, storytelling from brands does something a bit more subtle by carving out a place for themselves in our hearts. With storytelling, it’s important that we show rather than tell, so here are 4 brands that know how to spin a decent yarn:

Cheerios. The all-time best example I can think of as part of Cheerios’ story is the one where the Grandmother is talking to the baby in the high chair who has a bunch of Cheerios in front of her. This story shows a few different things in fell swoop. First, you see the cross-generation component- an elderly woman and a very young child, enjoying the same food. Then there’s the family element, when Gram is mapping out where all the different family members live in relation to each other via Cheerio. There’s also the use of an adorable child clearly getting frustrated that it isn’t actively consuming any of the cereal yet. It all ties in with the narrator at the end saying that Cheerios is “just part of the family.” Yeah, it’s pretty heartwarming.


GoPro. One of the interesting parts of GoPro’s story is it’s use of User Generated Content. Most of their marketing simply shares the cool things their users are doing with the product. In doing so, GoPro as a brand mimics what their products do- act as a vessel for people to share their own stories. This also makes their product accessible to a wider variety of people. When I think of people who would frequently use a GoPro, I think of skydivers and mountain climbers- generally adventurous people. Watching the various marketing material from the brand challenges this belief, since they show a high volume of normal, everyday people using the equipment for normal, everyday things. Below is a video from their YouTube Channel of a family enjoying some t-ball in a local park (no stunts or crazy air-born maneuvers):



Lego. Creating a story using video footage is great, but what about a feature length film? Some would argue that the Lego Movie is an example of brand storytelling (especially this article from The Sales Lion), and I’m inclined to agree. The movie is all in Lego form, but it isn’t an over the top “buy our product” movie. It’s a pretty genius move all around. The movie inspires adults and children alike to reconnect with that imaginative, creative part of ourselves. Legos are all about what we make of them, otherwise, they are just plastic blocks that really hurt when you step on them. Creating a movie that inspires this creation gives the customers an added affinity for the brand, and the product itself.


Netflix. I love this commercial because it’s a display of self-awareness on the brand’s part. It flips the whole man running after a woman about to board a plan scene, and people are able to laugh a bit at themselves- Netflix knows that we all share passwords in weird, convoluted ways (like brother’s roommate’s ex-girlfriend stuff), and that we’ll go through great lengths to get a Netflix password but not much else. In other words, it’s a relationship worth fighting for.


Whether you sell products or services, or work for a mom and pop store or a giant corporation, there’s always a multitude of stories you can tell. Notice in Mad Men, no one is trying to tell the story of the whole company; they show small vignettes and over time. These messages contribute to the company’s overall story.

Rather than trying to tell a big story about your company, try telling 10 small stories and look for a unifying theme. Ideas:

  • Your most interesting ‘regular’
  • A conversation you overheard in the breakroom
  • An interesting item on the boss’ desk
  • An innovative way you’ve seen a customer use your product
  • The first customer your business ever had

In telling small stories, like all the examples above, you’ll see they actually help show bigger things, like values and ideas, in a more memorable format. 

This month, we’ll be talking a lot about storytelling. If you subscribe to this blog, you’ll get our posts about it.

What’s your story? Take some inspiration from some big brands to think about yours. And here’s hoping some of these blog posts can help along the way!

The Weirdest Places We’ve Worked From

One of the cool aspects of our work is that it can be done remotely (I’ve talked about this a bit before).

While 90% of the time you can find Nicole or I in the office, occasionally we are working from…elsewhere. And with John and Alilia on board, we have an eclectic combined work history. You’ve seen our posts about working effectively on the road or from home, but today, we’re going to share the weirdest places we’ve worked from (so far).

In compiling this list, I feel like I’ve learned some interesting things about my coworkers here at Breaking Even… maybe you will too

Weird Places Where We’ve Worked

Nicole worked on a houseboat in Amsterdam. Let's say the house across the way was much nicer than the one she was in but hey, still cozy with coffee and WiFi.

Nicole worked on a houseboat in Amsterdam. Let’s say the house across the way was much nicer than the one she was in but hey, still cozy with coffee and WiFi.


When I was in Europe two years ago for ten days. Because it was in July (our busiest time), the two hours daily of checking email wasn’t cutting it so I decided to have one work day while I was there to get a chunk of work done. My travel friend Sarah and I had rented this houseboat in Amsterdam on AirBnB. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the houseboat but it had better internet than any cafe… so I parked it at the kitchen table and left the screen door open while I watched the boats go by. There were also some very friendly ducks and a coffee maker that was relatively large for the size kitchen it was in, so I was pretty content.

On a different European trip, I actually went to Bosnia to visit a friend who started a web development company there. I worked from his company’s office and had a great time. When I work I need it 1) quiet and 2) some place where I can really settle in (get snacks freely, leave my stuff set up for a few hours)… maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the idea of coworking spaces?


I once was in California visiting my grandparents’ house where my mom and sisters also live, and I was in the middle of a software conversion project, so for one of the status call meetings, I was prancing around on my sister’s trampoline while on the project call. That was my best working remotely experience.

My worse  working remotely experience was on the same California trip. I had set my desk phone in Colorado to forward to my cell phone, and I had asked the front desk to please not transfer any customers to me without letting me know first. They clearly disregarded my request as evidenced by the customer call I received while shopping at Costco with my relatives. I had to take the customer’s name and number and get back to them when I could get in front of my work laptop back at my grandparents’ house.

I once tried working remotely from a hospital waiting room while my son was in surgery. This isn’t as callous as it sounds—-I was desperate to keep my mind off what was happening in the operating room, and working was as good a way as any to do that. It was either that or watch the Fox News program that was blaring in the waiting room. Everything turned out well in the end and the operation was a success, and I took a few days off to be with my son and watch our daughter at home.
This past fall, I experienced a lot of unfortunate car problems. During one such incident, I worked from a VIP Auto while waiting for cylinders in my car to be replaced. It was actually awesome- no one else was there, so I got a lot done, until a lady came in with her dog who clearly didn’t want to be there.
One of the coolest places I’ve gotten to work was Gillette Stadium (also this fall). I was trying to write a blog post before a Monday night football game in a hotel room with my parents, brother, and brother’s girlfriend. The lobby downstairs was packed with fellow Pats fans, so I was stuck writing on a cot in the hotel room while The Godfather was playing in the background (which John will appreciate, I am sure). It wasn’t a great writing experience- fortunately I’m highly skilled when it comes to tuning out my family- but then again, I was getting ready to watch a Pat’s Game. You win some, you lose some (also…the Pat’s lost that game).
The internet lets us work weird places… and if you work online, I’m sure you have some fun stories too.
Out of curiosity, do you have any weird/interesting remote working experiences? Let us know!

A Simple Guide to Customer Loyalty Programs

As businesses, one of our goals is to increase our number of customers, right? As this number grows, retention also becomes a point of concern.

How do you strike the balance between gaining new customers and encouraging repeat customers? One common method is a loyalty program. If done well, these are win-win situations that encourage people coming back to your business time and time again.

Dandelion with seeds blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky with copy space

Implementing a loyalty program can seem complicated but it honestly isn’t. It just requires thinking about how you’d like to reward your customers and deciding on how to deploy the idea in your business. Here’s a few examples to get you thinking in the loyalty direction:

Loyalty = Current Customers Getting First Dibs

An easy thing that all businesses can do- when you launch a new product or service, offer it to your already loyal customers first (it’s like a “right of first refusal”). You can even take it a step further and offer it to them at a discounted price (usually the discount price has an expiration date). This isn’t so much a “program” as a “best practice” to show appreciation for the people who already support you.

Loyalty = Rewarding (Financially) Frequent Purchasers

Probably the most common type of loyalty program is some type of number system, like a punch card. A person has to come into your store a set number of times before receiving the reward. A common example is a punch card, like a “Buy 10 get the 11th free” deal. Service-based businesses can also use this type of reward system (i.e. get five haircuts at this salon and get a free manicure). It works because customers view the reward as either something they would purchase anyway, or something of value that they are interested in but haven’t purchased for themselves.

Loyalty = Letting Frequent Purchasers Play A Game

Games are another way to reward (or create) loyalty. McDonalds is a pro at encouraging repeat customers through games. One prime example is their Monopoly game. The contest only runs for a couple months out of the year. To play, you just have to buy food at McDonalds (I think it has to be a certain size in order to get stickers). Customers are encouraged to play for the bigger prizes (which require more stickers/purchases), but there are also smaller scale prizes as an incentive (like a free Double Cheeseburger). Irving had a similar contest a few summers ago involving Monopoly (I think the prize was a lifetime supply of fuel). I won a lot of free soda that year.

Loyalty = Giving A Freebie (Bonus Points If Unexpected)

Another easy way to reward loyalty is giving your customers something they already want. Sometimes when you go grocery shopping, you get some coupons with your receipt. Frustratingly, these are usually items that you’ve just purchased. That’s because you’re not getting these coupons at random. The machines assume you purchase the items on a regular basis (which may or may not necessarily be the case), and offer an incentive to return to the same store to purchase those items again.

Online stores have a unique advantage here- they can keep track of purchases and send follow up emails to encourage customers to “buy it again.” There’s a risk of appearing intrusive if you consistently offer specific rewards- there’s actually an entire episode in the last season of Parks & Recreation involving the ethics of data mining (all the citizens in Pawnee received unique gifts that were eerily specific and pointed back to information on their phones). In other words, your loyal customers want to feel like you know them, but not like you’re spying on them.

Loyalty = Letting Customers Purchase Membership For VIP Treatment

Some of the more successful customer loyalty programs actually require a membership fee. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to make people pay to be loyal customers, but in practice it makes sense. Amazon Prime is a great example of this- customers pay an annual fee, and as a result, they get certain products free or discounted, automatic 2-day shipping, and audio/video streaming. Another example is Dunkin Donuts Perks program. This past football season, whenever the Pats won a game, DD Perks members would receive a free medium coffee the next day (I almost signed up for that very reason).

In terms of services offering memberships, at some airports, you can even purchase a pass to the “Admiral’s Club”, a lounge where you can wait in the relative abundance of electrical outlets and free snacks (and relative quiet).

Customer Loyalty Programs not only give your current customers a reason to keep coming back- they can provide incentive for new customers to jump on board.  Think about rewarding the one you’re with and you may find your customers are even more loyal than you realized.

You Make How Much Per Hour?!

timevsmoneyIt’s everyone’s dream to get paid more to do less, or nothing at all (which is why everyone was clambering for Powerball tickets recently). You’ve probably heard the statistics of corporate CEOs and how their salaries translate to an hourly rate. If I just had their job for ONE hour, I could rule the world…or at least pay off my student loans.

Part of you thinks it’s obscene for one person to have all that money, but another part of you wonders how you can reach this higher plane of financial glory.

Just for fun, let’s take a look at the astronomical figures some people are pulling in each year. One of Chipotle’s CEOs, Montgomery Moran, makes about $13,500 an hour. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good burrito, but that number seems pretty steep for convenience food. Moran’s hourly wage is utterly eclipsed by Larry Ellison’s (CEO of data sharing service Oracle) $267,779. To put this in a bit of perspective, Ellison is making more per hour than the average American brings home in a year (roughly 5 times more, in fact). He’s making more per hour than the cost of 4 years of college tuition.

Moving away from CEOs, what do some of our favorite celebrities bring home? In spite of griping about Spotify ripping her off, Taylor Swift had an excellent year. It’s estimated that she makes about $40,000 per hour, putting her slightly behind Katy Perry who makes $67,500 per hour. (Interesting fact: both ladies are ahead of Beyonce now.) The highest paying celebrity in 2015 according to Forbes is Floyd Mayweather, mainly because of the boxing match this past spring.

Each of these high-rollers offer us entertainment or run companies that contribute to our quality of life as we know it. But what are CEOs or celebrities doing that contributes thousands upon thousands of dollars an hour? Checking email? Traveling? Writing songs? Singing? When you consider many of these tasks are actually handled by someone else, maybe some CEOs and celebrities just get paid to exist. It’s difficult to say. As Gigi Hadid recently pointed out to us on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, “Modelling is hard. You have to look good and be nice to people.”

What about the blue-collar end of the spectrum? Anesthesiologists (not quite blue collar in the traditional sense, but not quite at the CEO/celebrity level) usually make around $100/hour. This position is high-stakes with a clearer value to their contribution. Tattoo artists, commercial pilots, and underwater welders all make about $120/hour per project. Even though these jobs usually only require 15-20 hours of work per week, it still averages out to a decent hourly rate.

But, what about you? Using some of the ideas below, you can develop a strategy for making more per hour without necessarily working more.

Idea #1: Charge according to value from the start. Say you’re a freelance sandwich maker. You’ve been doing this for awhile, so you have your routine down to a science, and as a result you’ve significantly whittled down your production time (4 minutes per sandwich). When you get an order for 5 sandwiches, it’s only going to take 20 minutes of your time. If you charge by the hour, you might be selling yourself short. Charging per sandwich (or per project) is the way to go. For other sorts of projects, you’re better off charging per hour.

Clearly as a freelancer, there are going to be some five foot long party subs in your life but the greater percentage of standard sandwiches you can make with your time, the greater your hourly take home pay.

Idea #2: Be on retainer. There is a cost to being available and let’s face it, there are some clients who want you to be available. Getting paid for a set amount of time to be available (and not needing to necessarily be doing something) is a great way to increase your take home… but beware when all your retainer clients need you in the same week! (This is why you don’t want to take on too many of these.)

Idea #3: Profitshare your pay. Take a cue from some of our CEO friends and, instead of getting paid a large base salary, get paid a percentage of profits. There is plenty of revenue sharing softwares out there but, maybe in building that up and coming software company a free online shopping cart and taking 10% gross revenue for 5 years will mean a higher hourly rate than they would have paid you up front. Note: only do this when you truly believe in the company.

Idea #4: Sell people the same thing. Let’s say you get really good at making flyers for musical theater. If you have clients spread out around the country, why not use the same layout for multiple events? This is clearly something only applicable in some instances but if you’ve packaged something together that works for a certain type of client or job, why reinvent the wheel? Please note that we’re talking more along the lines of systematizing than producing carbon copies for clients (depending on your line of business).

Idea #5: Outsource. (Full disclosure: Nicole hates this idea but it exists so we’ll talk about it.) One way to make money off something is to find someone else who will do it for cheaper and be the middle man between them and your customer. Many people make six figure incomes by finding freelancers and designing processes that use their skills effectively. The freelancers get to do what they like at a cost they agree with, the middle man gets to build a team for a fraction of what an employee would cost, and the customer gets a good product. Or at least that’s the idea.

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If Paris Hilton is able to get paid $374,00 an hour to DJ in Ibiza, you should be able to gain a little something for your work, too.

We Can Get Someone To Maintain Our Site For Free.. Or Can You?

I was once on a committee that was discussing goals. We were bouncing ideas around, as many groups do.

There was talk about having to hire someone to do project management to coordinate the lots of moving parts. Totally understandable.

There was talk of hiring a logo designer to help create a better brand. Absolutely.

‘And we can probably get someone to maintain the website for free.’ said someone.

Out loud.

With me sitting in the room.

Now, maybe this was a way to get me to volunteer…But implying that what I do is easy enough that we could get someone to do it for free, well, that’s not the way to do it.

Here are three snarky, sarcastic things I didn’t say back:

“Yes, because so many people keep their websites up-to-date, there must be tons of people doing this for free already.”

“Yes I love the free t-shirt I got that software conference so much more than the $20 one I just bought.”

“See it’s the fact there are so many people that can do this well that explains why I am practically out of a job.”

Please enjoy my restraint.

Now here’s three reasons why you should assume something is ‘easy’ and therefor someone would do it for free (Yes, even for a good cause) with maintaining a website as an example.

1) You are willing to pay for similar skills… even when it would require getting the ‘free’ person to do stuff. Project manager wants something updated on the website? Graphic designer wanted a certain kind of website header? Guess who they have to talk to. Asking one person to do it free versus paying who they are working with is like asking your new girlfriend to get your stuff from your ex. Plus it’s awkward for all concerned and won’t lead to good feelings…or results.

2) You call someone not free when something terrible happens… so why wait? I have (way more than one time) cancelled my weekend or evening plans to spend hours trying to fix the hot mess of a hacked website. So why wait for something bad to happen to hire a pro?

3) Often the folks that you are asking for free help need something to pay their bills besides ‘exposure’ or ‘good word of mouth’. You wouldn’t show up to your job if that was your ‘payment’, how do you expect this person to be equally (or even a little) reliable with little to no incentive?



My point: If you are asking someone to do something for free, ask yourself why. If you have the money to pay other people for services; are going to be annoyed if it isn’t done (or isn’t done well); and are going to be annoyed at people you pay to bail you out as needed, reconsider. Otherwise, happy bargain hunting.

P.S. This blog post has been in draft mode for two years… and every time I think of releasing it something similar happens. So if you are reading this now and think this is aimed at you in particular, I assure you it is not. This is a general idea to consider the next time someone to do some work for free that you’d normally pay someone to do.

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