Years before Tinder and Bumble were popular, there was Are You Interested, the biggest dating app on Facebook. That was Cliff Lerner’s startup, and he grew it to more than 100 million users. With very little funding, he figured out ways to make his startup go viral. 

Cliff is the author of Explosive Growth. He is not some self-proclaimed growth hacker; he’s a founder whose strategies actually led to signing up 100,000 new users a day, without spending any money on advertising.

Cliff’s startup became so successful that investors like Mark Cuban, Tim Ferriss, and Gary Vaynerchuk were approaching him. His company even went public… and then Cliff lost $78 million.

In this episode, you’re going to get a master’s degree in building a fast growing tech startup. Cliff is going to teach you how to create a remarkable product, how to implement viral growth strategies and how he acquired 100 million users. If you like the movie The Social Network, you’re going to love this episode.

Get Cliff’s new book Explosive Growth on Amazon.

Learn more at


How did you start building a fast-growing tech startup?

I was working on Wall Street at the firm formerly known as Leeman Brothers and lived in Manhattan on 13th and 4th and my job required me to get to the office very early.

I remember one morning, I would get – wakeup, go outside and get a taxi and I literally got into a fight, a screaming match with a bunch of drunk kids who were coming out of what was one of the top nightclubs in Manhattan. This is 4:30 in the morning.

You know, on one hand, I didn’t want to be that kid but I was at the time about 25 years old and I realized, I went to bed at 8:00 the night before. I’m waking up at four in the morning, fighting these kids for 4th at a taxi at 4:30, this just wasn’t a life I needed to control my own destiny.

I mean, at that point, I realized, I need to control my own destiny, I have to start to think of a way to build my own business and come up with an idea


How did you start to come up with business ideas?

I realized pretty early on, just talking to friends and reading lots of books that it really makes sense to start a business of something I was going to be a user with. Something I would enjoy. I was just keeping my eyes and ears open and online dating was just starting to become a thing, this is around 2004/2005.

For those who can recall — not to age myself — but Myspace was actually the site that everyone was using for online dating at the time.


That was just when Facebook started expanding into other colleges outside of the ivy league network, right?

A long time ago, Facebook was just a blip on the radar for most. I wouldn’t hear of it for another three years pretty much. I sat in between two very attractive women, their job was in sales and basically, their role was to absorb information from the analyst, from the traders all day long and to go out with potential clients or existing clients and share the best trading ideas for the firms and with their business

What frequently would happen is, they would have these meetings most nights, it would cancel last minute and I discreetly would observe that they would spend the last few hours of the work day on trying to get dates because they were all ready to go out, got all dressed up and now they have nowhere to go.

They never were successful and it became pretty clear to me, that these very attractive, intelligent women were trying to find dates within a few hours and couldn’t. A, there was a need for it, and B, the best most popular site in the world at the time was not fulfilling that need.

Yeah, that’s where I really started to come up with the idea, if I can come up with a dating site or a concept where you can get dates very quickly, quality dates, I’d have my idea and I actually spoke to those women about it and they thought it would be perfect for them.

That really got the juices flowing on building a dating site that caters towards busy professionals.


Certainly, at that time I’d imagine there were other people thinking the same vein, like the guy who started Plenty of Fish?

Marcus is actually the name of Plenty of Fish. Yeah, you know, it’s funny because all of the dating sites when you look back had something really unique that made them grow.

Plenty of Fish at the time was, they had marked themselves as the first free dating site and they got very large based on that and also, he was a brilliant entrepreneur.

He basically invented the long tail of search engine marketing, not a search engine, of SEO. Search engine optimization. That’s how they were able to grow. But besides that, 2004, 2005. It was pretty much a game of Yahoo personals and just spending money on TV ads with sites that weren’t different from anything else out there.


How did you start to build the solution that wasn’t available for these women on Wall Street?

The idea I came up with was pretty easy and the way I was able to come to it specifically was, I spoke to all my friends who were using online dating sites and they agreed that it was such a tedious process to find a date.

Back in the day, you would send an email, three days later, there’s a one in a hundred chance that the woman bored you back. Then you’d set up a phone call and three phone calls later and three weeks later, you’d have your first date, that’s how it worked. Really time intensive, very tedious, inefficient.

You know, what became clear is if there was a way where you can indicate when you’re free to go out and a product can match you up with people who were free the same time, it would skip all of that hard work.

The idea of what’s called I Am Free Tonight, it was basically who, what, when and where. You would say, whether it’s you or you and a friend, your zip code for a location, what you wanted to do such as see a movie, go to a concert and then a date.

That was it, then we’d start spitting out emails of people who matched our search criteria who were free to go out. You know, the one other thing I realized too is, I didn’t have really a budget to work with, I needed an idea that would be viral and grow.

At first, I thought, “I have such a great idea, if you build it, they will come” and I learned the hard way that’s not true but what did work is, I introduced what’s called the wingman concept back in 2005.

That people were really scared, this might sound crazy today but people were terrified to meet a stranger they met online at a bar.

They were terrified. This was the top headline in the online dating space. Is it dangerous? You know, you’ve just exchanged messages, how can you meet a stranger at the bar? This seemed so bizarre to me because when you go to a bar, all you’re doing is meeting strangers.

When you find that person online first, there’s actually a complete digital record of who they are, there’s a very low likelihood that you know, if something terrible to happen, the authorities wouldn’t be able to track them down.

That just seemed bizarre to me but I thought, “Okay. If this is a problem, there’s safety in numbers, what if I build a feature where you can actually bring your friend into your profile, have a group file profile and search for others in groups to go out with.” The beauty of this idea was, in order for you to access the wingman concept, you had to bring your friend on to the site.


What happened when you integrated that new feature into your site?

You know, it’s pretty interesting, it started to work in that we saw guys, started to invite their friends to join their profile and build a group file profile. Women did not, however. What we learned pretty quickly was, although the feature had a lot of the key concepts to grow virally.

We overlooked or learned the hard way one key aspect and the timing simply wasn’t right. Women would not – the taboo of online dating sites was too hard to overcome. Women simply did not want to out themselves to their friends on an online dating site, so they would not use the feature.

You know, that actually really lasted until probably I’d argue Tinder where people were still really reluctant especially females to tell their friends or openly talk about they’re using an online dating site.

Whereas today, they’re not. I mean, people are pretty open about it, it’s not are you using an online dating site, it’s which apps are you using? But back then, especially women, it was viewed as though there’s something wrong with you and they would not tell their friends about the site. It worked for men but not for women.


How did you grow your user base?

You know, in those days, good growth, if you weren’t paying for it was a few hundred users a day. We weren’t getting that. Or, when we did get that, whether it be through a burst of this wingman feature and we were pretty good at getting press.

The users wouldn’t come back and that’s when I started to say to myself, “Maybe this idea or product just isn’t as good as I think but the clock’s ticking, the money’s running out. I need something better to grow a lot quicker and really soon.”

I just started looking around for opportunities. I cut all of our spending on marketing, I knew it just wouldn’t going to cut it, going to cut it to get –


How much were you spending?


We only had a couple of hundred thousand in the bank so on the marketing budget was probably about half of that. But I knew that getting a hundred users every day or a couple of hundred, this wasn’t going to do the job. I also saw that users aren’t coming back and it wasn’t clear to me if the network effect was taking in.

Meaning, I just didn’t have enough other users on the site to keep people happy or maybe the idea just wasn’t good enough but I knew there was a problem. I basically just cut the burn of the company, how much cash we were spending to buy time and started to look what ultimately, I would term as a growth rocket which is basically some idea or concept that I could massively grow the audience.

What happened in 2007 and money was really close to running out. I read about this site that was going to open up what they were calling an API platform and what that meant was, any company can build an app and users can invite their friends on this site and this site was called Facebook.

You know, I asked my friends about it, no one had heard of Facebook, it was still really only big on the colleges. I only had one programmer and I was looking at this and reading through the documentation and what became clear was, you had a user who had a bunch of friends and they were giving you the ability for that user to reach out to their friends.

I thought to myself, the one thing I had learned in building, I Am Free Tonight is if you can take an action, people are doing in the real world and make it a lot easier for them to do that online, you probably have a great product The way people meet in the real world is generally through friends introducing them to someone else to go out with.

Obviously, at that point in time, there was no dating site that – or really, any site that knew who your friends were, let alone a dating site. I had a feeling that there was something here, I called up my programmer, I sent him the link. I said, “I want you to build a Facebook app” and he said, “What’s a Facebook app?”

I said, “I don’t know, figure it out.” He locked himself in the bottom of a pasta factory, that’s actually where our office was at the time. For a week, and came back to me and said, “Okay, here’s what I figured out. I put our site, on Facebook so now users can see it, is that what you want?”

I said, “I think so, sounds pretty good” and the next day, we got about 5,000 users. Right. This was I believe around May/June 2007 and the reason we got so many users is, back then, when the platform just launched, there weren’t many apps in the app store and apps were so unique to users, that they were just installing every app on Facebook.

I thought to myself, “Holy-Moley. We spent two years building I Am Free Tonight and the best we got was a couple of hundred users in one day. We don’t even know what Facebook is and in one week, we got 5,000 users.” I told him, “Shut down I Am Free Tonight, we’re going all in on Facebook. I don’t know exactly why. I just have a feeling. If we get 5,000 users existing, there’s something special going on here.”

To tell you the truth, investors started calling me. I started my company with my brother, my family was involved, they thought I was out of my mind, how do you shut something down you spent two years and invested a few hundred thousand hours in for something you’ve invested a week in? But you know, that’s kind of I think where your gut kind of takes over and when you see something that you’ve just never seen before, you’ve got to go all in.


Was it hard to shut that down for you or were you like, “This is such an easy decision after seeing the growth?”


It was hard for me to explain it to everyone else including my programmer at that time who have bent the bulk of his two years building that site. Because I didn’t have a great reason as to why I thought this was the answer.

What I knew was that we saw a few other apps that weren’t big companies, they were just individual developers, getting 30,000 users a day. I said to everyone, “If I’m worth half of what I think I am and the rest of the team is as well. There is no reason we can’t do what they’re doing and if can get the 30,000 users a day, we are the fastest dating site in the world and I need to eliminate all distractions. And our existing website is a distraction.”


Is this what you mean by finding the growth rocket — a great growth strategy trumps a great product?


Exactly. I had seen at that time how the other dating sites had grown and, looking back, what’s interesting is that you have a lot of users, Tinder, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, Are You Interested, with the app world and we’re referring to, that became the largest dating app on Facebook. Zeus.

In all honesty, there really isn’t that much differentiation between a lot of these apps and a thousand other apps. What truly made them great is a brilliant, unique role strategy and you know, I start to figure that out and I thought, as soon as we got on Facebook and all of a sudden we’re getting all these users, we had a growth rocket that could get our site in front of a bunch of people and they were using our features for the first time and coming back.


Can you break down how they got their start?


I think what makes them all so interesting is that each one was very unique, different, probably can’t be replicated by anybody else but with predicated upon not having to spend a lot of money, but being really creative, hungry and trying a bunch of things that complimented the product.

For example, let’s talk – I’ll start with us, Are You Interested? When we put it on Facebook, what made me so excited is the ability to reach out to your friends. That just had never been done on dating, that’s how people met in the real world.

One of the very first features we built was the ability to quickly swipe, where you view one profile at a time, similar to the tinder interface right now, we did this all back then and you can indicate very simply, are you interested? Yes or no on each one of your friends. That would send an invite to that friend on Facebook to see if you like them.

And we would only reel if it was a match, if the friend liked you back, it’s called a double-blind match in online dating. What happened is, I would go through my list of friends, click yes on every girl, just because I wanted to see if they like me back.

They would get an invite, they would want to see if I like them back, so they would click yes on me, we’d all be matched, everyone was on the site, boom. The point being, that functionality was really perfect for the platform of what’s now known as Facebook at that time to integrate your friends.

You know, another example is, let’s look at tinder and how really they blew up. They actually were living in obscurity for a little bit, part of an incubator that was shut down, it was the last surviving product and they had this hail Mary marketing plan of I have a feeling, if we throw a party at some college campus, this could work.

So many people have tried that but the execution was brilliant. They went around and found the influencers on campus, the most social people, the best looking and they all put them into a room.

All the attracted social girls and then invited all the good-looking influential guys and said, they had to download the tinder app. Boom, you had a hundred guys and girls download the app at the same time in the same room, everyone’s matching with each other, by the end of the night, the entire campus had it.

You know, what made that work so well is the interface of tinder, the GPS technology of showing people who were closest to you and getting a concentration of people all on at the same time talking.


Is it simply “follow that formula” or is there a bigger picture thing that you would advise founders to do?


I like to first think about what’s not going to work and that always helps me think about because that’s how I talk to other entrepreneur and give them advice about this.

What’s not going to work is building a great product and just thinking to use the four com. What’s not going to work is building a great product and think the press is going to write about it and users will come.

What’s not going to work is spending a bunch of money or copying someone else’s strategy such as tinder’s or ours that did work. What is going to work is saying, I need to get a really large amount of users and only focusing towards ideas that can really grow massively very rapidly and then trying a bunch of things.

Because what that does do immediately is mean, anything that cost a lot of money is out the door, because as a startup, you want to have money, you have to be creative. Now, what you saw with us and what you’re seeing with a lot of products is, the first place I’d start and I think the opportunity is going every day, building on top of platforms.

Even the large platforms, whether it’s still Facebook, or Instagram or Snapchat, there are still so many opportunities and almost every time you read about and expose a product they figured out a way to integrate into the large platforms.

I would just advice, those opportunities are growing every day and it’s really just about being hungry and being creative.


Are you saying it’s not just building on top of a platform, it’s going where people already are?


Exactly. I think before apps and before most businesses were done online, they used to say, you know, in real estate, in business, location is everything. I think what you say is dead right. In these days, location is where are the users.

Go to them, figure out a way to leverage wherever they are and build something that’s interesting for them.


This is similar to PayPal isn’t it? PayPal wasn’t a standalone product, it was originally built to help people on eBay.


That’s a perfect example, exactly. It’s interesting you bring up a product that in today’s terms would be considered ancient but there were platforms back then and PayPal as you just alluded to, many people don’t remember, they were able to – they had to pivot a few times and ultimately figured out by building a feature on top of eBay, they could grow massively.


At what point were you like, “We have made it”?


Although it was growing quickly, there were other apps that were growing even quicker that had even more users. I knew that this was a mad rush and at some point, something would happen that would make it a lot harder to grow.

This just got us hungrier to figure out how do we get such a big lead before the’s of the world we come to this idea. That’s where we really learned, how to take advantage of the opportunities on Facebook to go virally but one of the key things we learned very early on was copy.

Meaning, the words that you use to communicate to your users have such a massive impact and I’ll give a very quick example. We’re growing around 5,000 users per day and we started to build at the time, we didn’t know what we were building but what you would call today, a robust AB testing framework where we could easily test five to 10 different landing pages for our users.

The way Facebook apps worked then — if you want to grow virally — is you can ask the user to invite up to 20 of their friends. At first, we just were saying, invite up to 20 friends and some people did. Between that and being in the app directory, that got us a few thousand users a day.

Then we started running a whole bunch of different tests. We realized that tiny little changes can make all the difference in the world and ultimately, at our peak, there was one little change we made that made us grow from around 10 to 15,000 users a day to 100,000 users a day. The lesson we learned and the change we made was that you need to sell the benefit, not the feature.

The feature we started to highlight in our text was inviting more friends and get higher results or higher placement in our search results. That was the feature. But what the benefit was, is that by being placed higher in the search results, you would get more matches.

By getting more matches, you would get more messages. We started iterating on the text and ultimately said, invite 20 friends and get up to 10 times more matches. Boom, that was the benefit, that hit home to the users. 100,000 users in a day.

I think the best example is when Steve Jobs introduced the original iPod, the slogan he used was 1,000 songs in your pocket, that’s the benefit. Now, the feature was a five-gigabyte hard drive but no one’s buying something because the marketing says five-gigabyte hard drive.

That doesn’t tell you why that user is getting value but a thousand songs in your pocket does.


Would you say that the best way to explain the benefit is when you nail what the exact result that person is looking for?


Yes, exactly. The way to get at the right answer is to keep asking yourself why. In our example, first, we started to say, get priority placement in search results. Why? Well, that would get the person’s profile showed more. Why? Because that will get that person more attention. Why? Because that will get them more matches. Why does that matter? Because more matches mean more messages.

Why does that matter? Because that’s what users want on a dating site. You know, there’s something called the five Y test. If you keep getting through the Y.


How do you know when you’ve hit gold?


It’s funny you said that. We actually went through that exercise and this is jumping around a little bit when we were building our mission statement. We went through that exercise and what we came back with is eliminate loneliness.

You kind of just know, because that’s truly the thing that if the reason your customers or yourself use that product, right? In that exercise for dating, when we came up with “get 10 times more matches or 10 times more messages”, that’s why I’m using a dating site. Now, of course, you could ultimately extrapolate that even more.

Maybe for guys who are 23 is, you’ll get laid more, right? You know, there might be some products where that is the benefit ultimately but if you don’t know when you’ve gotten there, I think you got big problems.

But, as you were saying earlier, even a lot of the best products today still have really bad copy and are selling the feature, not the benefit. I think to sum it up, the benefit is, what is that thing that users are ultimately getting value out of your product?

You know, make sure you’re making that clear.


Can you talk about the gold mine in your company that is your customer service emails?


Absolutely. I made a habit of reading every single customer service email and I wasn’t sure why at the time except I just – instinctively thought, I want to know what they’re saying, I want to know what they like, I want to know what they don’t like, of course, it’s pretty brutal and I understand why people don’t because even if you’ve got a product that’s doing well, most people simply complain.

Especially on a dating site, not many people are going to say hey, it worked, I met someone. I was reading and we would get a few hundred a day and I read one and it said something to the effect of, thank you so much for starting the are you interested app.

I was browsing forever and I saw a friend of mine and I liked them, then the next day, I logged in and it said we’re a match that they like me back. Then we were out in the real world, go figure and just catching up and grabbing a drink and they were drunk and they were joking about the fact that they became a match on Are You Interested.

Just by talking about it, one of them kind of said to the other, I kind of do like you, how do you feel? The other’s like, I do too. This person wrote, they now have been dating for several weeks. What I realized is, wow, most of the emails we were getting were basically complaints about features or bugs.

Here is someone who took the time to write about a beautiful amazing experience that was really actually hard to happen at the time because friends weren’t treated separately in the search results. They were mixed in with every other user.

I thought to myself, how cool is that? That this was a friend in real life and what I then did is I took that information and I said, let’s pull out all the friends from his search result and put them into their own browser.

Basically, just called “Your friends”, very simple. There’s a concept Seth Godden called the “purple cow” and it’s basically your product needs to be remarkable and what it means. It’s literally worthy of remarks, something that makes it so unique and so different that people want to talk about it.

I thought, wow, here it is. We have the ability to show just your friends and search results and reveal which ones like you. No product could possibly do that until Facebook came along. That’s ultimately what made this product take off.

One of the things that we were testing in the invite flow that also led to 100,000 users is, not only should you invite 20 friends to get higher placement and get more matches but invite 20 friends to see which of your friends like you.

That’s really compelling and to actually fast forward, there was an app Facebook bought last week called TBH. To be honest. It became the largest app in the app store overnight. One of the key things they did was going back to that time-tested theory of people really want to know who likes them and they made it an anonymous feature, the whole app was based on anonymity where you can see if we crush someone and they give you hints on who liked you.

This was the same thing back then.

I think I got one other story that even builds upon what you just said.

We learned through the testing the copy that the faster we could test, the faster we could learn, the faster we’d grow and beat our competitors and you know, there became a whole movement, the lean startup.

I believe in that 100%, you’ve got to be willing to quickly put your ideas and features in front of others but what’s also very compelling about that or what will make that work a lot better is, really empowering your entire organization.

We found over and over that the best ideas came from the people who weren’t paid to come up with ideas and you’ve got to provide a way to empower them. I’ll give you a fun little example.

We were testing a feature and I was sitting next to our programmer, bulk testing it before we released it. The interface of the app is similar to the swiping apps today. And as we’re testing it, I noticed every single profile result was a beautiful blond hair, blue-eyed woman.

I said to him, your search results look a little different than mine, am I crazy? He said to me, don’t get mad, I’m like, I don’t get mad, what did you do? He goes, I really am in appreciation for attractive things, especially attractive women and a lot of our users are not the best looking.

I built my own filter that only showed me good looking women. I go, “That’s interesting. How does this work?” It’s actually quite simple. Since the app is based on swiping one way or the other, based on the range show of people who clicked yes versus no, I can pretty very easily tell which users were perceived as physically attractive.

I said, “That is amazing or the worst idea or most offensive idea I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure., How long will it take for you to put this live?” “I can get it live tomorrow.” I go, “Great! Put it live, call it the hottie feature and charge $5 a week.”

I don’t remember the exact number, but it was very easy. We made a few million dollars off of that.

From that, I started to hold a monthly brainstorm that the entire company had to attend that was basically, tell me any ideas you have and nearly every great idea ultimately came from people whose job it wasn’t to come up with ideas.

The bigger your product or company gets, the more disconnected the decision-making leaders are from our customers. When you think about it, it’s so twisted and backward. Who are the only people in the organization who truly have a direct line and talk to the customers regularly?

That’s your customer service team. Guess who gets paid the least amount of money? The customer service team. Guess who has the most barriers and blockades or a lot of the communication to the decision makers? The customer service team.

I mean, you have just uncovered a big problem with organizations. The one way we got around it is we actually started requiring every employee to spend an hour a month with the customer service team, reading and responding to emails and listen to phone calls.

Another thing I did and which I would urge every founder CEO, entrepreneur were to do is it becomes impossible to read every email as your business grows. But, you can have someone summarize them into the five or six most written about topics each week and then just call out anything unique interesting and summarize it all for you.

That’s what I did to make sure I didn’t lose touch.


What are the three metrics that really matter for startups to survive?


You bring up profitability. Everyone wants to talk about growth but the problems with these metrics is that one, you need to have a lot of users before they matter. Two, when they’re not working, they don’t tell you anything about how to fix it and they’re likely going to lead you down the wrong path.


You are referring to just this particular type of company, the fast-growing startups, right?


Right, this is mostly for startups I’m referring to. Although I would still argue these metrics I am about to mention are crucial for any business. The key thing is that they really tell you the why. And if you don’t focus on these metrics first, you’re ultimately going to die. The three metrics are retention, your USP — meaning unique selling proposition — and the net promoter score. Let me just tell you about why these metrics are so important.

The USP is one I came up with on my own and it really was inspired again by Seth Godin and his Purple Cow concept. Because if a product is really going to grow and achieve explosive growth, it’s got to be unique special remarkable, which means it’s got to grow through word of mouth. In order for something to grow by word-of-mouth, there has to be something so unique about your product that nearly every user within seconds of using your product comes away with that same message.

And I realize that there should be a way to measure this and when are you interested at some point it’s usage starts to decline a little and I went back to my basics and in the early days it became known as the Facebook dating app. It was unique because we did so many things to integrate into Facebook that is common today such as one click and you have a profile, one click and all your photos are imported. You can see your mutual friends, mutual interest.

You can match with friends, those were all unique and we became known as the Facebook dating app. So what we did is we asked the question to our users, “In one sentence how would you describe this product to your friends?” and if you’ve truly got a unique selling proposition at least half of the responses will say the same exact thing. In the early days, we saw they did. They all said this is the Facebook dating app.

When our usage and metrics started to decline, we probably got 80 different answers when we asked 80 different people. So you definitely can measure how unique your product is with that one simple question, “How would you describe this product to your friends?” and if half of the users say the same thing, you’re sitting in really good shape. Your product is unique and it’s going to take off. Now, going to retention. I learned this very quote today from “I am Free Tonight”.

I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. We were getting users but they weren’t coming back and what does retention ultimately say? It basically tells you everything you need to know in terms of what users feel about your product. You can spend money on marketing to get users to sign up. You can spam the crap out of them with notifications and emails to get them to come back once or twice but you can’t spend your way to get them to come back one week 30, 60, 90 days later.

The only thing that is going to get them to come back is because they really like your product and so few entrepreneurs they are so obsessed with focusing on growth at the expense of retention. They might win for a little because they are not looking at retention and they wake up and everyone is gone but I can tell you this, if your retention is focused on from day one and people are coming back for your product, you’ll be able to get growth.

Whether it’s people start telling others about your product, you can raise money so retention is metric number two and then, of course, net promoter score. It’s amazing to me how so few people regularly measure this or even familiar with how it’s measured. I mean the net promoter score is simply asking your users, “On a scale of one to 10, how likely are you to recommend or tell your friends about this product?” and you take the promoters, a promoter being someone who ranks it at eight, nine or 10 and subtract it from the detractor, so someone who says one, two or three.

I actually argue you shouldn’t subtract it from detractors. The only thing that matters is what percent of your users are promoters and what this is basically telling you is, do your customers love your product enough to tell their friends and the reason why this is so powerful is you can get this with a few thousand users and your customers aren’t going to lie in a survey like this and if at least 50% of them aren’t giving you an eight, nine or 10 well guess what?

If you now go out there and start spending the money on marketing, what you’re literally doing is saying, “Potential customers, come check out my shitty product that you’re not going to tell your friends about” right? But I can tell you this, if people are saying they are going to tell their friends about it and your net promoter score is good, game over and kind of going back to your original comments about profitability and such, these things are early indicators and can be solved for well before that.

Whereas if you are not measuring if you have a USP, you’re not measuring retention or net promoter score, any profitability you have at some point is going to go away and what you’re probably going to do is first hiring someone in your marketing department. Cut a couple of costs, thinking you need a better marketing team and your marketing team is going to be sitting there with the critical information because they’ll realize, “Crap! I’m really good at my job but no one wants to use this product because it is shitty”.

So these are really the three things I learned very early on. If you could focus on retention whether your product is unique and the net promoter score gets these metrics aligned, you are going to be sitting on some explosive growth pretty soon.


Can you talk about picking one goal for you and your strategy and the result it had?


Are you interested to start to grow like crazy the largest Facebook dating app? And then the world started to change. The dingoes of the world started to raise a ton of money. In our space, Zeus entered the dating world and it raised a lot of money and Facebook made it really hard to grow. They changed the rules of the platform and our performance started to suffer and when things start to suffer, you start to press a little and have all of these different goals and priorities and they’re shifting.

And I woke up one day and realized, “Wow, we literally have over 20 different goals on our KPR report”. Our KPR report being in our weekly all-hands meeting, we have a little deck that showed our key performance indicators and the goals and we had over 20 and of course naturally, if you’re trying to focus on 20 things, you focus on nothing and we were really desperate and I thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this” and of course, I started reading lots of books. Jim Collins books are just fantastic for any entrepreneur.

Good to Great, Build to Last. There are so many crucial learnings but it might have been Good to Great, I’m not sure which one but it became clear that there’s generally one particular goal that if you get that right, everything else will fall into line and when I looked at my goals, we were a dating app. One goal was, more time on site, more email clicks, more average revenue previews are on mobile, better SEO on the web and all of these things they were all in some way related.

And what became clear to me is I started to ask then the why question, the why question, the why question, what really keeps people coming back to our product and what keeps them coming back to a dating site more than anything, at this point in time it wasn’t getting that message which was the case in 2007 when we went viral. This was a few years later, we figured that out. Everyone was getting involved with these messages, maybe too many messages.

The problem was no one was getting replies anymore and we had optimized so well for messages and I think you see these on a lot of the swiping apps today, one of the problems is I have all of these batches but no one writes back to me. So it became clear to me that if we could get more replies to messages, everything else would fall align. More replies mean more quality emails which means people coming back to the site more which means they spend more money, everything is solved.

So, I eliminated every single goal and challenged the company very aggressive goal, 90 days, we need to go from 80,000 replies a day to a 160,000 double it. Everyone thought I was crazy, “It’s too aggressive we can’t do it” I said, “This is the only thing we are going to work on and the entire company is going to get involved” and what I did is we put together some really fun prizes and there aren’t a lot of lessons on what prizes actually motivate employees because I learned it the hard way.

It’s not money. Apparently, I’ve seen the Book of Mormon on Broadway and I gave every team 10% of the site to just test any ideas and 90 days later, we were sitting at 400,000 replies a day. A five-times increase simply because we focused on one goal and the entire organization galvanized around that. Another analogy I can come up with is that I used to play basketball in high school, and when you play sports, if you have everyone who’s truly committed to the same goals you’ll probably going to win.

But if you have one person who’s trying to stuff their stats, who’s not running the play because they take the shot, toward on the shot clock to get points, everything falls apart and I can tell you one other really interesting thing I learned is that as we’re doing this exercise, I started to ask employees one on one, “What do you think the goals of the company are?” and at that time I had about 40 different employees. I got 40, I got 40 different answers.

In my head it was so obvious and by having just one goal, everyone knew what that goal was and all of a sudden the conversations at the water fountain weren’t about, “Did you like the episode of The Office last night?” they all were around, “Okay my test increase replies by 12%, we tried this new feature. What are you guys doing?” and it was a beautiful thing.

And it’s funny, now that you brought up Jim Collins it triggered my memory. What I do remember is, I believed he introduced the concept of a BHAG, a big hairy audacious goal, that every organization should have this goal that’s just so overarching that really gets people passionate about it and his example, of course, was when we announced we were going to get up and land on the moon in 10 years, seemed crazy but we did.

Now our goal was not quite as ambitious as landing on the moon but it was so clear, so concrete and it really motivated employees to be excited about coming to work the next day because they knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish and what would happen if we got there.


Would you say that an example would be all the companies that Elon Musk is a part of right now that all have crystal clear goals?


Right and that’s something we also wanted to route around the right time. Our culture started to decline and besides having crystal clear goals that the entire organization is aware of having a really inspiring vision envision is so crucial. We didn’t have one and I learned again through reading some Jim Collins books that if you have an inspiring mission, it becomes something that employees really have a reason to come to work.

It attracts the right employees for the right reasons and instead of someone thinking, “I have a job. It’s from nine to five. I hope I get more vacation time” there is something bigger that they’re trying to solve and as I said earlier, we came up with the mission of eliminating loneliness and that the company became so excited about that. It gave them a much bigger reason to come to work because even in a dating site, the work can get mundane from day to day.

At the end of the day, a lot of companies are really who’s better at online marketing, who’s better at PR and what we did to enforce that is every week at our meeting we would read a success story. We would encourage our users to tell us their success stories about finding someone and it really led people to understand there’s a reason I am doing this and it’s actually making the world a better place and probably the best example was our lead programmer, Mike Sheraf.

Who was just crucial this entire story, we were at a karaoke party. We always did karaoke for events and there was another group talking to us and I overheard a conversation where they said, “So what do you do for the company?” and without even flinching he said, “I bang on the keyboard and babies are made” and I just thought of that how beautiful, right? I mean that’s the power of a compelling and inspirational mission statement does.

You’re not thinking, “I am a computer programmer developer writing thousands of lines of code that needs to be tested and the feature might be poled” no. “I type into my computer and at the end of this, people are actually meeting and having babies”.


Can you tell us one or two of your biggest successes in the PR world and what you learned in order to have that massive result that you had?


Yeah so that became fun for us and we created a playbook internally where it got to the point where every two weeks we’d have a story that would go viral and before we really came up with is look at your industry, look at your competitors, what is something that is controversial or taboo that people talk about? Maybe it’s a stereotype and then of course what I did is that I brainstormed the whole company because again, you’ve got to leverage your organization.

The best ideas are usually going to come from people who aren’t paid to do it. So I said to them, “What is something controversial? What is something taboo?” and a bunch of people in customer service said, “Huh, they always say in dating that blondes have more fun. Is there a way for us to measure that?” and then our data guy said, “Huh, yeah that’s easy! We can just see based on hair color how often people get liked or skipped and then you run the data”.

And then you look at what is the most interesting or controversial data point and that becomes our catchy click bait headline and in that case, it was “Wow blondes have 28% more fun” it’s true. If you’re blonde, you get 28% more likes than the average hair color. Now what’s interesting for guys is bald is beautiful. Bald actually isn’t a bad thing and that became one of our headlines that lead to a viral story.

And, you know, from that it really became just wash, rinse and repeat. Brainstorm, what is something controversial, taboo or interesting. Okay, let’s run the data. Is there an interesting catchy or something you wouldn’t expect that becomes our headline? And then of course, if something starts to work, you could just repurpose that story on a different demographic. So for example sticking to the hair color, well what if we just ran that by city?

Now the story becomes relevant for every single city which has their own local paper and then the answer of course for each city is generally different. So now, we have one story that worked nationally but now we have dozens if not hundreds of viral stories on a city level by just narrowing that story down.


Did that become the BuzzFeed methodology?


Pretty much. I don’t think it was BuzzFeed but it was a major similar publication that wrote, “Hey everyone who is in marketing PR if you want to know actually how to do it right, look at what these guys are doing. Come up with interesting data and a good product behind it” and they’ve literary wrote that story of doing a case study of how to have good stories go viral.


Obviously, you guys took a dive and you personally took a dive but before that happened, you IPO’d. Tell me what that was like?


Right, so a lot of our story is really about doing things differently and I had a Wall Street background and I knew we need to be different and unique and we went public very early on but not in this traditional sense of an IPO today. There is actually a path to go public that very few people know about. It’s called a self-registration and the problem with it is, when you’ve done it and it took about five months for us, no one really knows you exist because you didn’t have a big investment bank and a bunch of investors behind it.

And we basically live in obscurity for a few years even when we had the largest dating app on Facebook and we were growing at 100,000 users per day. So much so that we needed money to grow. I approached over a hundred investors. Zero for a 100. I got rejected by every one of them. This was before Facebook went public. They just didn’t know what a Facebook app was. They thought an app was a sad excuse for a website and I just couldn’t believe it.

I go, “Do you realize that we are growing faster than match? This is the future of dating. Do you know this thing that you call “the Facebook” is going to be one of the most apps in most countries in the world?” and you know the lesson there was, no means not now. I’ll go into one of my favorite investor sightings, investors are like jealous ex-girlfriends. The same 100 investors who rejected us four weeks later begged me to invest at 10 times evaluation they rejected us.

And what happened was that we had a very favorable article come out that we’re the future of online dating. Our stock went from a nickel to $4.5 making the evaluation go from five million to over 80 million and all of these investors were now begging me because someone else had discovered the story and said we were legit.

That’s just wild to think about. A hundred investors say no. I would say the lesson is no means not now. Find one investor, one person who believes in your story and then everyone else will line up.


Who were some of the people that were approaching you?


I mean this was at the time everyone from major hedge funds. I had Goldman Sachs was desperately calling me on speed dial when they saw the story break. Maria Bartiromo was the anchor of CNBC, this was her lead news story one day whereas the week before I was literally going to my friend of a friend of a friend who makes $50,000 a year and saying as a favor, “Could you put in five grand?” and this is how quickly things can change.

I remember it might have been Business Insider but a major publication was talking to me running the story and they say, “So how many employees do you have?” And I said, “About 12.” And they go, “Oh so 1200”. I go, “No, no 12. We got Mike, we got Wayne, we got Lizardo, we got Brian, we got Carol.” They’re like, “Oh.” So you should never give up. No means not now. Investors are like everyone. Like Alice, they don’t want to be the dumbest person in the room.

Meaning they need to see someone else bite first. So really focus on finding that one investor to get to believe in your story instead of trying to make a bunch of them.


You had an opportunity to get really wealthy a few times and you turned it down outright. What happened?


So I’ve got to bring it up. It’s a little painful.

Yeah, so being a public company your stock has a value and you can very clearly see how much your stock was worth. When the story broke and we became a very hot story, the stock became what’s called liquid meaning all of a sudden everyone was trading it. So if you wanted to sell it you actually could whereas before, it literally didn’t trade. I mean when I say it didn’t trade, it didn’t trade in the 10th of the 12th prior days to the story breaking and then it traded $2.5 million in shares the next day.

So the stock went from a nickel to a high of $4.5. My paper net worth was about $112 million. At the time I’m 32. Now the Facebook movie hadn’t come out yet but I am thinking to myself literary, “Hey I got the fastest growing dating site in the world. No one realizes how big this Facebook thing is going to be. Why should I sell out a $100 million because I am going to be worth a billion literary” that’s the Shawn Parker quote and fortunately, I did have a few friends.

Advisers, mentors who are so important who have been there done that, they’re like, “Don’t be an idiot. You don’t need to sell it all but take some money off the table. It’s going to be no harm and you’re going to say thank you. So just take a few million dollars off the table” so we went out there to raise money and I told them I wanted to sell some of my shares and the banker said, “Cliff we would never get this deal done”. I’m like, “No just a few million dollars”.

They go, “Cliff, your stock was worthless last week. Your company, no one ever heard off. This might disappear tomorrow. We need the strongest message possible and if we go to the investors saying you wanted to sell some shares personally the story will die” and I listened to them. Now usually when you do a capital raise like that, the stock will trade down because there are all these new investors and shares flooding the market, your people are diluted.

Our stock continued to trade up for several more months and I had – it turned out it was a complete lie and the bankers were completely self-motivated that they wouldn’t even try to tell the investors because they knew at the time they could tell they can bully me. I absolutely could have taken money off the table and of course, I continued as this site ultimately and stopped and declined over the next few years, I remain stubborn because I thought:

“Wait it was worth a $112 million, now my stake is only $50 million. I need to get it back” and I had many opportunities to sell and by the time I woke up, it pretty much was too late and nearly the entire stake was lost over time. So my advice is, when it comes to bankers and other and pretty much human beings in general, everyone is looking out for their own interest. Understand their motivations, they are not going to be aligned with yours and understand that.

And in this case, I definitely could have taken some money off the table. I never did and it’s really probably my biggest regret in all of this because if I had done that when the company had money a few years later and we had to take a very difficult financing, I could have been the one who put the money on in much friendlier terms if I had sold back then.

I am not necessarily saying I should have sold the company but if it’s a change in lifestyle and at the time that would have been a million dollars. It’s a massive change in lifestyle for me and that would have been nothing considering I had a $112 million in value of the stock and I didn’t even do that and about three or four years later, when the company was in pretty dire streets to raise money and we took finance on very difficult terms, a million dollars would have made all the difference in the world if I had it.

So you know, when you have those chances it doesn’t mean you need to sell the farm but you should definitely take some money off the table.


So where did things leave off for you with the company after all of that? How did it end?


Like most absent in businesses, the game for us became how do we grow up by one or two percent? And I just woke up one day frankly hating my job. That wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t fun. The company had grown to 50 or so employees, 80% of my day was dealing with lawyers and accountants and it just wasn’t what I loved and it was right about that time, my friend told me to go to Tony Robins’ seminar called Unleash the Power Within, which I would urge every human being on earth to go to. It made me really made me understand what motivated me.

What made me happy and how I was wasting a time right now doing something I didn’t love and not thinking about the right way and it became clear to me, I basically needed to sell the business. The company, we no longer had our purple cow. We were just like every other dating site, the retention metrics supported that. All the other metrics supported that that I have run out of ideas to fix it but we still have many valuable assets including a new and exciting dating product called The Grape.

That with more financing or under a bigger company I think have potential and my vision was video was going to change everything which we’re seeing but especially dating. Everything that’s wrong with online dating is solved with video, right?


What do you mean by that?


What I mean by that is most people in a few seconds of watching someone interact either on video or in person know everything they know about whether they want to go out with that person whereas no amount of emails or phone calls will tell you anything. So between that and on dating sites, you know everyone has their profile from 12 years ago when they look great, had more hair, were skinnier and you just don’t know what they’re really like.

There is something like over half the profiles are disingenuous. But again, you see someone in video. In person, you know everything you need to know and I thought video is disputing every other space. It’s only a matter of time for dating and we just didn’t have the resources, and I didn’t have the desire to figure that out from the ground up. I went to see if there are any companies that can help us and we were very fortunate enough that a company right down the block in Manhattan called Pal Talk was experts at video.

They had seven or eight different products that were all around video of live chats and they have had this technology for 20 years and we had a meeting of the minds of video is going to be the future. We integrate our dating, they’ve learned what we’ve learned around metrics and optimizing to their video products and the company would remain public, we would have a fresh start and really have a very new crystal compelling vision that we would use video and live experience to build a new set of interactive dating and social products and sold the company almost a year ago now and we’ve been now working on building those products.

I won’t tell you that 20% of people on dating sites are married. Not origin on it, just a stack.


What is the one thing they can do from your book this week that can improve their work on the job?


If you read the book and it’s on the website. I summarize each key section with an explosive growth tip and I challenge the reader. I ask a question and it really forces you to be honest. And there are about 70 of them. As a founder or CEO, these go from culture to how to hire and fire to whether your product is unique.

I would urge you to take this the explosive growth quiz, it will really make it clear to you what’s holding you back form explosive growth. I’m a product marketing person at heart

One of the things I go see a few times in that quiz is, is your product really 10 times better than your competitor. The 10 X effect, people know about it but what I challenge you is to quantify it and what I mean by that is, if your product is really that much better, prove it with numbers and I ran a fun experiment with my friends about a year ago, just to see if our product was still 10x better. What do want on a dating site?

Ultimately, the value you’re delivering is getting a date. The challenge was, use every dating app, who can get a date the quickest and this is when I knew tinder was going to pretty much eat everyone’s lunch. All of us found dates on tinder within minutes.

On the other apps, it took hours. Tinder was literally 10x better so my challenge to you was take my explosive growth quiz on the website in the book and from a product perspective, if there’s anything you can do, to see if your product is unique and special, see if you can quantify if it’s 10x better than your competitor because it probably not and if you figured that out, you’ll have explosive growth.


Who of our audience do you most want to connect with you and how should they go about doing that?


I’m on Facebook under Clifford Lerner, my twitter handle is @clifflerner and on LinkedIn under Cliff Lerner, as well.

Get Cliff’s new book Explosive Growth on Amazon.

Learn more at

If you’re a medical professional, you know how hard you’ve worked to earn the privilege of practicing medicine. But like any professional, you eventually need to think about protecting and growing your wealth.

In this Author Hour conversation, Michael Zhuang (@InvestScientist) gives a crash course on how physicians can secure a healthy financial future.

If you’re a busy doctor who’s struggling with student debt, malpractice litigation, or just the ever-changing healthcare system. This is an episode you need to hear.

Listen in to Michael to learn:

  • How to choose an investment vehicle that’s right for you and your finances
  • Why you need to regularly stress test your finances
  • What you can do today to start planning for a financially stable future

Physician Wealth Management Made Easy on Amazon.

Learn more about Michael’s services at

How did Michael Zhuang first become interested in wealth management for doctors?

I’ll never forget the day when I got a phone call from my own family doctor. He say, “Michael, I can’t be your doctor anymore.” At the time, I was actually running a hedge fund in Florida. I wasn’t a financial adviser.

But I was surprised that my doctor called me to tell me he could not longer be my doctor, I asked him, “What’s going on doc?” He explained to me that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he only have a few more months to live.

Then he said to me, “Michael, you’re the only finance guy I know, can you help me and my family?” Like I said, I wasn’t a financial adviser, but I just couldn’t say no to my own doctor. I ended up at his house with his family going through their personal finances which were not in good shape.

Three months later he passed away, but I decided to I stay to help his family survive. That experience was transformative for me and it’s the reason I converted my hedge fund into a wealth management firm specializing in helping doctors.

Why aren’t more doctors wealthy?

It’s interesting, I’ve talked to many doctors over the years and even though physicians are among the highest income group in this country, by and large, they are not very good at taking care of their personal finances.

There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, medicine is very different from finance, it’s a totally different field, yet many physicians have this belief that if they are good in the one field, they’re also going to be good in another field. Well, that’s just not true, but very few of them actually trust outside advisers.

The second reason has to do with the fact that physicians usually start making money a lot later in life than others because being a physician takes many years of training. Depending on what kind of speciality you are in, you may have to be trained for 10 to 16 or 17 years. By the time you start working, by the time you start making good money, you’re now in your late 30s.

So doctors have a lot shorter time to make up for the years that they missed. Also, the profession is very demanding. After you’re seeing patients for eight hours, a lot of doctors just don’t have much mental energy left to take care of their personal finances.

A doctor.

There is all kind of reasons but I just mentioned three to give you an idea of the challenges physicians face when trying to manage their wealth.

What’s the #1 takeaway from Physician Wealth Management Made Easy?

I really want doctors to understand all of the components of wealth management, or the things they need to pay attention to in order to have their personal finances in good order. In the book, I talk about the six components of wealth management.

A piggy bank.

All six may not be applicable to every single doctor. For example, a doctor in private practice may need to know all six components while a doctor employed by a hospital may only need to focus on three or four of the components.

But regardless of your specific situation, I want all doctors to at least be aware of these components. These are the things you really need to pay attention to to take good care of yourself and your family in terms of your personal finance.

I won’t go through all of the components here, but one of them, maybe the most important one is investment. You need to invest well in order to preserve your wealth.

Why do so many people have trouble investing well?

I devote a whole chapter to the science of investment. Nowadays, investment is at a bit of a crossroads. There’s a lot of voodoo going on, there’s a lot of fake practice going on, but on the other hand, there’s also a growing number of people taking more of a scientific approach to investment. It’s no longer just based on gut feelings as it was in the past.

A screen showing a financial stock graph.

But by and large, not a lot of people know about these scientific approaches to investing; the ideas and the knowledge are not well disseminated, yet.

A good example of a voodoo approach is Jim Kramer.

Imagine you were sick 200 years ago, you’d call out a shaman to your house and what does the shaman do? He will dance, he will shout, he will make a big show, but there’s not much substance there. He’s going to do all kinds of crazy things to supposedly cure you but that’s not going to make you feel better.

Well, Jim Kramer is doing exactly the same thing on TV, dancing around, making a big show. He’s the modern version of a financial shaman.

Sure, people think he’s entertaining, he seems to be knowledgeable because he spits out ideas left and right, but just like the shamans of the old, it’s merely a show.

What can we do this week to take a smarter approach to investing?

That’s a very good question. When it comes to the scientific approach to investing, Eugene Farmer and Gilbert Shiller are at the forefront.

Pay attention to their work. Robert Shiller has published two books, and although Eugene Farmer has written many research papers, I understand that they can be very difficult to read for the average person.

Richard Thaller is another person to pay attention to. He has a few books out as well, so my advice would be to pick up copies of Robert Shiller’s book and Richard Thaller’s books.

What does it mean to stress test your finances?

A stress test is essentially when you invite an outside expert to look at your family’s finances, your investments, your trust arrangement, your tech strategy—essentially everything that has to do with your money. During the stress test, these experts will then find if there is anything that needs to be improved or if there is anything that you’ve done wrong with respect to your financials.

Typically you want to stress test your finances every five years just to make sure that everything is in good order. Most people don’t do that. Even millionaires don’t tend to regularly stress test their finances, and they have a lot to lose if something goes wrong.

There was a survey that asked people with a net worth of between $1 million and $25 million if they regularly have an external audit done of their finances and only 13% of respondents said they did.

But here’s why doctors really need to stress test their finances. Frist, there is a lot that you don’t know that a second opinion can reveal. Secondly, once you’ve had an expert look over your finances and give them a passing mark, they can provide you with peace of mind so you’re not constantly worrying about “what ifs” around your money.

If your financial situation can be improved, well then that’s incredibly useful information as well. You want to know if you could do your taxes in a slightly different way to save money and you certainly want to know if your assets could be exposed to a potential lawsuit.

How does someone with little financial knowledge choose a reputable financial expert?

When looking for an expert to conduct a stress test, you should always look for a fiduciary.

The problem is that anyone can call themselves a “financial advisor,” but not all financial advisors are fiduciaries; brokers are not fiduciaries.

Your Grandma can call herself a financial adviser and she is not seriously breaking any law.

But there’s an easy way to tell if your financial advisor is a fiduciary, ask them, “Do you have a series 7 licence?”

If someone has a series 7 licence, he or she is definitely not a fiduciary because a series 7 licence is a broker’s licence.

A lot of people are so happy to jump in and answer, “Yes, I have a series 7 licence,” well that’s when you want to walk away.

If you could give our listeners one challenge that they could carry out this week in order to get their personal finances in better shape, what would that be?

Pick a day on your calendar, it could be next week, it could be next month, but pick a day and write “Get a second financial opinion.”

Actually, do this instead.

Pick up the phone and schedule a second opinion right now.

Select a date when you’re free and then say, “Okay, on this day I will sit down with an expert and deal with my finances head-on.” Otherwise, you’ll think, “Oh, I can do that another day in the future.” It’ll never happen. So pick up the phone right now.

The benefit will be tremendous. The peace of mind that comes from knowing your finances are in good order is priceless.

Physician Wealth Management Made Easy on Amazon.

Learn more about Michael’s services at

Looking for more on how to get your personal finances in order?

Check out these other Author Hour episodes:

Calls to customer support lines are usually a test of patience and often don’t end well, but Mikhail Naumov (@MikhailNaumov), author of AI Is My Friend, is here to change that using artificial intelligence.

In this episode of Author Hour, Mikhail shares what he’s learned as the co-founder and president of Digital Genius, the leading platform for making customer service calls a little more human using AI.

Listen in to Mikhail to learn:

  • The future of customer support
  • Lessons learned while working with dozens of contact centers
  • How companies are using AI to scale faster, make employees better at their jobs, and keep customers happy

Get Mikhail’s new book AI is My Friend on Amazon.

Find out more at

How did you first recognize that AI has the potential to change the entire customer support experience?

I’ll never forget when we launched our very first chatbot for BMW. They were an early customer of ours, this is going back three and a half years; at the time we were still a couple of guys sitting in a not-so-nice office with only one mission: To build technology that helps companies automate conversations with their customers.

Early on we thought that the best way to do that was through automated chatbots that would be able to have meaningful conversations with customers on behalf of the brand.

At the time, BMW was launching their electric cars in the UK, the I3 and I8, so part of the message they wanted to get across was that their marketing for these vehicles was going to be as innovative as the car itself.

So they hired us to come up with a chatbot that could carry a coherent conversation with a potential customer. That was our first foray into helping large brands, successful enterprises, have technology-infused conversations with their customers.

The campaign started with TV ads which would showcase these new cars and at the end of every single spot, there was a phone number that anyone could text with a question about the car.

For example, you could ask, “How much does it cost? Where can I buy one? or How long does it go on one electric charge?” Potential customers were able to ask fairly basic fact-based questions but they were also able to have more complex conversational experiences like scheduling a test drive or signing up for dealership visit.

That campaign lasted more than a year and hundreds of thousands of people texted that number after seeing those TV spots. So, it was a great tool for BMW to be able to engage with their customers without necessarily having to hire thousands of people to have these conversations in real time.

For us, it was an amazing learning experience. We learned that chatbots, while they’re useful in very narrow-use cases, such as answering basic questions about a car, telling you the weather, or helping you order pizza, they’re not great for customer service.

It was after working with BMW that we realized we needed to move away from chatbots and that the customer service industry was ripe for disruption. So we set out to build a technology that could actually help individual customers with unique support issues on a case-by-case basis.

How do you move from chatbot to fully autonomous customer support? 

Chatbots get a lot of attention, they’re quite hyped up, but it’s important to remember that a chatbot is just a title. What you really need to do is look under the hood and figure out what’s powering these bots.

In most cases today, chatbots are powered by a traditional form of natural language processing (NLP) which essentially relies on someone sitting down and writing out a bunch of scripts manually. The bot then uses keywords in the questions that people ask to choose a suitable response.

Somebody would have to sit down and think of every way possible that customers could ask a question about a product or service. Then they would try to match those questions to the appropriate answers. As you could imagine, this process is very lengthy and arduous, it takes a lot of time, and it doesn’t really scale well, especially in an environment like customer service where each unique question is so different from the other.

That’s one of the reasons why chatbots based on NLP don’t really work in customer service, and it’s a lesson we learned from working with BWM and some of our other early clients.

To move toward autonomous customer service we took the entire backend of our technology and reworked it from basic NLP to full-force machine learning and deep learning technology.

What are machine learning and deep learning?

Deep learning is a subset of machine learning where essentially you use technology to digest massive amounts of historical data, these data are then used to process inputs and create outputs. In the world of customer support, the inputs are questions that customers are asking and the outputs are answers that exist inside of a contact center.

Every time you have a problem with your bank or with your airline for instance, you write in an email or make a phone call, we consider that an input. On the other end of that input is an answer that you get from the company or from the company’s representative, that’s an output.

Believe it or not, in those contact centers there are millions upon millions of historical customer service conversations stored in the format of transcripts and data logs, so we can take that data and feed it into a deep learning algorithm which converts all of these inputs and outputs into numbers and equations.

Those equations can be used to create a model which then predicts an output from a given input.

The important difference between deep learning and an NLP chatbot is that deep learning is automated; we don’t have to actually go in and manually script all the different ways someone can ask a specific question and hope that the bot gets it right.

With deep learning, we can rely on real, historical conversations that have already taken place to train the computer model. The fact that deep learning is based on authentic human interactions makes it a lot more resilient, a lot easier, and much more cost effective to implement than a traditional chatbot.

Can you tell us a bit more about your book, AI is My Friend?

Yeah, I’ve spent the last three and a half years of my life living inside contact centers. I’ve literally spent thousands of hours sitting down next to hundreds of agents and watching what they do every day.  I’ve watched them do their jobs, I’ve talked to them about the various things they have to do, and I’ve learned about the types of tools that they have to use.

I’ve done all of this to figure out one thing:

How do we make the latest advancements in machine learning practical and useful in the contact center environment?

After three and a half years we learnt a lot, so we decided to put all of these insights into a book: AI Is My Friend: A Practical Guide For Contact Centers.

It’s really written as an underground guide or as a guide from the trenches for customer service experts, practitioners, and leaders who have heard about AI and understand its importance but aren’t quite sure how to actually implement it.

This book is there to help you do just that. It addresses the entire ecosystem of AI, it’ll help you figure out how to pick the right partners to work with, it dispels any of the myths surrounding AI, and it’ll walk you through how to actually put this stuff into place.

What are the key points that someone has to know about AI before they decide to implement this in a call center context?

The first thing to understanding is that you have to differentiate between what AI is and what AI is not.

First and foremost, AI is not there to replace your contact center overnight. You won’t be able to shut down your call center tomorrow once you implement AI, that’s just not how it works.

The second thing to understand is that there are a lot of companies out there claiming to be AI experts, but once you look under the hood, all they do is a bunch of traditional rule-based scripting that has been written to try to mimic what artificial intelligence can do. It’s not the same thing.

What is AI and what isn’t AI? Asking that question up front is really important and it’s something that the book gets to the root of very quickly so that when you see something in front of you, you’ll be able to tell if its AI or if it’s something trying to mimic AI.

Part two is understanding the spectrum of AI and that spectrum ranges from low-level intelligence applications, things like scripted chatbots, to the high-level stuff you see in Hollywood movies. I call that Hollywood AI. A lot of the AI you see in movies is obviously fiction, so although there may be a lot of hype around them, they’re really not becoming a reality anytime soon.

In the middle of the spectrum is an area we like to call practical AI. This is the technology that you can actually implement today to make your business run more efficiently.

Let’s say I’m a skeptical contact center manager, why should I care about AI?

There are a number of reasons why it’s important to implement AI and figure out an AI strategy for your contact center right now.

The first thing is that inside of a customer service environment, we’re always facing the same challenges. The volume of queries is growing, customers have higher expectations for better service than ever before, and contact center budgets certainly aren’t getting any bigger.

The reality is, a lot of contact centers today are being portrayed and perceived as a cost center to a business. You’re constantly under pressure to try to deliver more for your customers with a smaller budget or with fewer resources.

Well, what happens when a new channel comes out like Facebook Messenger and suddenly, your customers are expecting to be able to talk to your company and your brand through Facebook Messenger?

This exact scenario just played out with one of our clients, KLM, Royal Dutch airlines. They became the first airline to serve their customers via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Unexpectedly, the volume of messages that KLM received through these new channels was astronomical and that’s very difficult to plan for.

The only way to really solve that problem in the past was to hire more people. Now, we can come in and implement an AI-augmented solution to reinforce your existing team of agents.

We can give them the right tools so they can perform at their best while the AI technology is automatically trained using all the historical conversations that have already taken place in your contact center. As new queries and questions come in, the AI is able to help your agents answer those questions faster.

Improving your agent efficiency is one benefit, but overtime is AI also learns from the agents themselves to the point that it can begin automating some repetitive questions and answers.

For companies like KLM and many others that have implemented Digital Genius software, or just AI software in general, what they are looking for is to scale their contact center in a cost-effective way and invest in their people by providing them with the best tools. Why a contact center manager wouldn’t want to do that is beyond me.

Can you share some of the results your clients have seen from implementing your AI solutions? 

So first of all, AI needs to be put in place in order to reinforce the existing contact center to help it scale. Where it starts is by helping your agents be more productive every single day. So whereas it used to take them three or five or 10 minutes to handle and incoming email, or a call, or a live check conversation, we’re trying to drive that time down so that they can handle these questions a lot faster.

So they don’t have to do the repetitive steps that are normally done manually. The machine does it for them and so what this does is it helps companies address their high level of customer service metrics. Metrics like average handling time, how long it takes for an agent to handle your case. Metrics like CSAT or customer satisfaction, how satisfied are the customers with the experience that they’re getting. Metrics like first response time, how long do you have to wait until you get an answer, the first answer to your question?

And so these are all the typical metrics that are measured in contact centers and these are the ones that are AI solution is addressing. Now, when it comes to talking about some anecdotes, we have some great customers. So the software is already powering over 30 contact centers globally. Among them we have KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, which was as I mentioned, the first company to serve their customers on these new exciting channels like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

And in their case, we have significantly reduced our average handling time to the tune of about 35% and what that does is that allows their agents to unlock time. So they can handle more cases or be more attentive. In the few cases that are really sensitive, really going above and beyond the call of duty to help their customers. So that’s an example for you.

So five years from now where do you think you’re going to be with your company?

I think the goal for the next few years is to continue establishing relationships and really being the market leader in AI for customer service. You’ve got the situation now where AI is so hyped up and everybody is talking about it but it’s not quite clear who has it and who doesn’t.

Whether there is any real success stories of customers using it and we’re fortunate. The companies we worked with now are getting results and are sharing those publicly through case studies and through press releases. So that feels good but this is just the beginning.

So five years from now, I want to make sure we maintain our market leadership in AI for customer service but I also believe that by then, we’ll be branching even beyond the customer service space. So, while today we remain focused on contact centers. I think the trend in the world is that contact centers are very quickly evolving from being a place where people go to ask questions and you know agents are there to answer those questions and that’s it.

I think those contact centers are evolving into the first line of communication between the company and the customer. So that means those professionals working the contact centers need to evolve their role.

They need to be able to do things that are more than just answering basic questions. They need to be representing the brand and we really hoped to help companies achieve this by providing them with tools that help their agents be better.

What’s the one company you really hope to work with?

Well every company we work with now I really do enjoy and I appreciate. So we have as I mentioned, great companies in the travel, transportation, hospitality sector. So I can’t say there is one company that I dream about working with. I’d say about it just has to be a really good fit.

What can our audience do this week from your book to maybe test this out?

I think the first part of being competent in your job or in your role or even in your career at large, is to be educated at every stage of the game. The world is evolving today faster than it ever has before. I mean think back to our parents and our grandparent’s day and age and it was like, you know, new technology wasn’t coming out every year or every month, certainly not every day.

Now, you’ve got things coming out by the minute, by the hour and so, especially in a cutting edge industry like artificial intelligence, it’s really important to get educated.

My challenge to the listeners today would be very simple, is to go out there and read up about what are these things called deep learning and neural networks and AI and try to cut through the hype of “Hey, AI is going to take over the world and we’re all going to be living in the world of terminator in the future.”

Really try to look for practical applications of AI and how you can leverage them yourself in your career to get ahead.

Do you have an example of somebody who’s used AI in their own career to get ahead, apart from you and your team?

Absolutely. So, apart from our team, it’s a lot of our customers actually, the end users of our software are customer service agents and professionals who have dedicated their career to helping people have a better experience with companies, right?

That’s why they work in a contact center, they want to help you. So having deployed our software to these folks, they’ve been using it to get ahead in their career and in fact, we’ve had – I’m sure you know this but in the contact center world, the rate at which people switch jobs is very high so an agent might work in one contact center for a year and then they’ll go on to work in another one.

Well, I think the coolest thing that I’ve seen happen is, they would take our digital genius software with them. Having had it in their first job, they show up to their next job and they say “Hey, where’s my AI? How come there’s not AI here to help me do my job and help me perform at my best.”

Those are the best stories because those people, because they’ve been educated, because they had a chance to experience what it’s like to work with AI every single day, they’re now leading. They are now being considered for promotion, for their opinion is important to their management and what they’re trying to do is figure out, “Okay, that’s okay, I’m now working with a company that doesn’t have AI. I kind of want it back because it was really helping me.”

They become leaders overtime in that new company.

Get Mikhail’s new book AI is My Friend on Amazon.

Find out more at

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Today’s episode is with David Baldwin (@davidlbaldwin), author of The Belief Economy.  

David is a big deal in the advertising world. He’s won tons of advertising awards, but David isn’t just about advertising, he’s about doing good in the world.

In this episode, we talk about the golden rule of marketing and the cultural shift that’s changing how the world’s biggest brands are marketing to consumers.

By the end of this episode, you’ll get a glimpse of how belief-driven brands will shape our future and how advertising is becoming more human.

Listen in to David to learn:

  • How to market to millennials and the iGen generation
  • Why the triple bottom line makes good marketing sense
  • What you can do today to shift how your organization views consumers

Get David’s new book The Belief Economy on Amazon.

Find out more at

What made you want to write about advertising?

I have children; I have a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old, and the notion of my children as consumers is quite disturbing to me. Thinking about my own children as consumers made me rethink everybody as consumers.

The idea of consumerism and of quantifying a human being as a consumer is this one dimensional, very disturbing picture of what a human being is. It calls to mind a locust descending on a field to consume everything before moving on, but my kids are my kids and my family is my family. We all have mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters, and friends and neighbors and none of them are consumers.

Yet when we sit in our offices as marketing people, we talk about consumers. It’s a little bit of a false diagnostic.

You don’t cradle your kids in your arm and say, “Hello, little consumer.” That would just be weird.

I’m a capitalist through and through. I sell things for a living. Yet the relationship between myself and my kids and my family made me rethink how I do that.

Having kids of my own was probably the biggest fundamental shift for me as a marketer and an advertising person, and that really planted the seed for how I now view marketing and this book.

How has media consumption changed in the digital age?

Having experienced the growth of my two children, one of who is on the cusp of the millennial generation and the other who is fully part of the iGen generation, well, they have completely different relationships with brands than my generation.

For example, my 21-year-old son does not want to watch TV with me. He doesn’t want to watch TV at all, he thinks it’s stupid. He consumes all of his media on a mobile device, whereas I clearly remember watching many hours of TV at home. When I was little I would sit on my Dad’s lap and watch football. TV was a communal sort of campfire that we all gathered around, but that’s changed.

A teenager consumes media on a mobile phone.

Individuals now have full control over what they want to watch and how they want to watch it, so we’ve lost that bonding aspect to content consumption. It’s almost a loss. That alone was a sea change.

How did come up with the idea for your book, The Belief Economy?

As an advertising person I have some control over what I work on and I get very excited by companies and brands that are doing more than just selling, so I’ve always looked for those kinds of opportunities.

A great example of that is Burt’s Bees. I’ve worked with them for 6 years now and the thing I love about Burt’s Bees is they have what they call their “greater good model.”

The greater good model is based on a triple bottom line that includes things that are good for you, the consumer; things that are good for them, the business; and things that are good for everyone and everything. Everything that they do as a business has to fit within that model, so the question becomes, “Can you make money and do good things at the same time?”

It’s about having a positive impact on whatever world you’re living in.

Most people in the advertising industry would describe themselves as creative, and creative people tend to want to have some kind of positive impact, they want to make a difference. Advertisers don’t get up in the morning and say, “I think I’d like to create a cultural blight.”

We’re now starting to see more and more brands like Burt’s Bees and Tom’s Shoes were the business model itself is wired around positive impact.

That’s exciting, but there are a lot of brands that aren’t wired around positive impact, so how can advertisers help them create a positive impact even if the business model itself isn’t based on “doing good?”

Well, you can still have a positive impact, and you still have the power to solve a problem for people.

Michael Porter is a Harvard professor who put forward an idea called shared value over 10 years ago. Shared value is this notion that businesses are in a better position to solve society’s problems, compared to NGOs or governments, because businesses come up with solutions to problems and then scale them for a profit.

My idea was to then ask, “Can we look at advertising in the same way? What if advertising could be used to solve some of those problems as well?”

In essence, I wanted to figure out how I could use marketing to help brands make a positive difference in the world. So that’s where the idea for the book came from.

What’s the #1 takeaway from The Belief Economy?

As advertisers, we need to market people the way we would want to be marketed to. Nobody wants to be yelled at and sold to. Don’t leave your humanity at the door when you walk into your office in the morning.

Remember that your speaking to human beings. They have problems that they’re trying to solve and they have thoughts and feelings and concerns that speak to those problems, so collaborate and co-create with them to solve those problems with your product and you will win.

Not only will you sell more, but you’ll feel better about what you do and your audience will feel better about you.

This book is about using the tools you have at your disposal to market to your audience in a way that provides value to them.

The title of my book, The Belief Economy, refers to the buying power of millennials and iGen, which is huge. These generations are changing the nature of marketing. They rely less on traditional advertising channels and more on word of mouth from friends and family members. They’re sharing their experiences on social media which means that any one individual now has an incredible amount of influence.

A smartphone displaying shortcuts to various social media networks.

Another area I focus on in the book revolves around the fact that these generations are now entering the workforce and if you run a marketing company, they’re already working for you.

Half your workforce might be made up of millennials. These employees are wired around the idea of making things better, solving problems, having some kind of belief in a system. They’re very wired to care about what they’re doing and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’ll get left behind.

These two generations are changing marketing from the inside out, and in order to succeed as a marketer, you need to adapt. That’s the biggest takeaway from the book.

Can you give us some practical tools or guidelines for marketing in a way that provides value to consumers?

Probably the best example of this—and they were just named the campaign of the century—is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

A screen capture from Dove's Real Beauty campaign.

This certainly isn’t by accident. Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever has said that by 2020 every brand under the Unilever umbrella will have as its mission to have a positive social impact.

If you look at that Dove campaign specifically, they’re trying to change the conversation around beauty and this false sense of beauty that our society has adopted that says you have to be a certain size or your skin has to look a certain way to be considered beautiful.

As far as guidelines go, typically when you’re developing a marketing campaign you’ll have a marketing brief, this document that outlines the tone of voice and the central idea or thesis that you’re going to adopt for your campaign.

What I talk about in the book is how to take that document and the descriptions that it contains and turn them into behaviors. So let’s say you want your campaign to be joyful, well what actions can your brand take to create joy?

That very simple action of turning a description into a list of actions creates a belief system of how your brand exists in the world. You now have a belief-driven brand.

I’m going to use Burt’s Bees again as a quick example. One of the descriptors for their marketing brief might be “all-natural,” well they’ve taken that and turned it into an action: they will not make anything that’s less than 96% or 97% natural.

They’re on a journey to be a 100% natural across their entire product line, so I don’t know where they are on that journey right now, but that’s something that Burt’s Bees believes in and will always believe in. It’s a non-negotiable thing, and that resonates with their audience.

So, I would just say, so figure out your non-negotiables and turn your descriptors into actions and behaviors.

What would David Baldwin’s challenge to listeners be?

My first challenge would be to vote with your wallet. The way to effect change is to continue to use your dollars to make decisions.

Going a little deeper, you could look at your own workplace.

Is your company marketing to its audience in a way that helps them solve problems and provides them with value? If not, talk to them about it, help them understand the positive impact marketing can have, show them what’s happening, show them best practices, and how you can create value for both the organization and its audience.

If you’re a marketer yourself, take a marketing brief in your company and turn the descriptors into behaviors, or actions, and see what happens as you take that up the command structure in your company.

If you’re working in the gig economy and you’re a freelancer then you have the ultimate choice of who you want to work with. You’re already empowered to work for the companies that you want to work for.

Start with what you respond to and what you love and go from there because those are the breadcrumbs that will always lead you to that golden rule of marketing: market to others as you would want to be marketed to.

Get David’s new book The Belief Economy on Amazon.

Find out more at

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Do you struggle to effectively train and assess your employees? Was your last corporate training session filled with engaged employees or listless drones?

The answer to increasing employee engagement doesn’t lie in the office, it lies in the arcade. Author Jason Suriano (@jasonsuriano) is here to teach us how to use gamification to more effectively train employees and gather important employee performance metrics. 

In his new book, Office Arcade, Jason takes his 15 years of hands-on digital production experience and applies what he’s learnt to the world of employee training and assessment.

Whether you’re a human resource manager, a corporate trainer, an instructional designer, an eLearning specialist, a product manager, a marketer, or someone who’s simply interested in learning more about effective gamification, this episode is for you.

Listen in to Jason to learn:

  • How to engage employees even when they’re focus is on the most boring subject matter
  • Why gamification is the quickest way to identify gaps in your current training programs
  • What it takes to gamify your employee training materials

Get Jason’s new book Office Arcade on Amazon.

Find out more at

How did you first become interested in gamification?

If I was learning something at the office, or I was being trained at work, it always felt extremely tedious and even somewhat painful. In my backstory, I grew up in a family business, a family restaurant, and I did a lot of the onboarding and training for employees when I was younger.

I found that when we made some things a lot more fun, or more game-like, it just seemed to resonate a lot with the new hires.

Tell me about the first time you became aware of the gamification principles you talk about in Office Arcade.

In the early 2000s, getting your training materials online and into a digital format was a bit of a challenge. The first thing that I saw was that there were ways of using hyperlinks, or different web pages, that would allow you to condense the material down into smaller pieces, or what they call now “bite-sized learning chunks,” and that would allow the end-user to get through things a lot more efficiently. Even that was a massive advantage.

You could take a three-hour course with an open book exam and condense it down into an hour or less. Just by using hyperlinks, you’re already making that course way more enjoyable, and this is absent of any sort of game-based or playable elements at this point.

Also, by giving someone too much material, you’re overloading them with information.

Only give the learner the exact pieces of information that they need to know to perform a specific task, then allow them to research or dive into the areas that they find to be more important.

That’s the biggest shift from before to now, and it’s what led me to dive deeper into gamification.

How has technology changed the way we learn? 

One of the things that I talk about a lot when I’m working with clients or when I do presentations is this idea of smartphone-based learning.

Almost every one of us has a smart device and when you go into your phone to say, check the weather, you’re going to tap that weather app and be in there for maybe 30 seconds to a minute and then you’re going to back out and tap another app and do something in that app.

A man holds a smartphone in both hands.

Well, what you’re really doing is gathering information in increments. You’re learning something piece by piece because you’re going app to app to app. That’s the same kind of philosophy that we can apply to more traditional learning environments, like corporate training programs.

You only have a minute or two per task or item before you need to move the person on to the next thing, so you almost have to interrupt that user experience to make sure that they stop focusing on one piece of information and move on to the next.

This new way of learning is completely different than the way the old model of continuous, or full-time learning. No one wants to sit at a desk for an hour and just listen to a lecture. That just doesn’t work anymore.

How do you get people who are used to the more traditional classroom approach to learning interested in learning by gamification?

That’s something we talk about in the book. It’s something that we call the learning pathway.

What’s interesting about our approach is that we don’t tell the user how to use the software. There are no instructions whatsoever.

But we do make it as simple as possible so that people don’t get frustrated early on. There’s only one item that they can click or tap on and they’re already into the experience. The software basically moves them along this learning pathway, but it was one of the first challenges that we had to overcome when we built the software.

The boomer demographic, or the older adults, that interacted with our applications would get freaked out because there wasn’t any guidance or instructions because all the instructional learning and all the pieces were already broken down into these bite-sized tasks.

Yet after going through the initial stages of the material, these boomers would perform better than some of the millennials because they had the experience.

The millennials appreciated the form factor because it’s way quicker to get through the material. It’s presented in a format that they’re already used to. It’s very much, “let’s get to the point and get going.”

How can any office adopt a gamification approach to learning?

One of the things that we always recommend is to start by really taking a look at your training materials, your training binder, training manuals, HR manuals, even go through Powerpoint slides and figure out first and foremost, what are the key bullet point items that you’re trying to get across to your students?

You need to summarize those core learning elements so that when you decide to apply some of these game design layers or storytelling to your training materials, the information that needs to get across to students isn’t lost. That makes my job or any other vendors job very easy because we can actually hit the ground running with this content that’s already been streamlined and approved.

That baseline learning material needs to be in place before you can even start thinking about bringing game design elements to your training programs.

Can you give us a quick summary of what readers can expect from your new book, Office Arcade?

At its basic level, Office Arcade will help readers understand what gamification really is based on my past experiences over the past 15 years. One of the main problems, and one of the reasons why I decided to write the book, is that gamification has actually gone through a number of different evolutions since the idea was first introduced to the market.

I was there when we were doing things at the time that we called edutainment. Then it shifted over to serious games and now it’s gamification. There are a lot of different buzz words that keep changing but the same game theory still applies.

The book does a really good job of explaining gamification in very plain language that anyone can pick up on. I also use key examples from the work that I’ve done to illustrate what has worked well and what hasn’t worked well for me, as well as what the reader should be looking for when they apply these tactics themselves.

Finally, we try to explain to readers what they should look for in a vendor so that they don’t get scammed by someone who is saying that they’re a gamification expert but really isn’t.

Gamification is a lot more than just going in and adding some points and badges to your existing training materials.

One of the main issues right now is that there aren’t that many quality examples or an understanding of what a company should expect from vendors who claim to be gamification experts.

A woman plays a game on her smartphone.

Can you share some client success stories with us?

One of the examples that I talk about in the book is with one of our nursing partners and some of the work we’re doing in the healthcare and medical space.

Nurses and physicians don’t have a lot of time. They’re extremely time-limited. Yet a lot of the regulatory bodies are asking them to sit down and write a five-hour open book exam in one sitting.

A student sits behind a pile of textbooks.

So we’ve been able to go in and allow them the freedom to access this exam at any place and because it’s now digital, they can do it at their own pace in one or multiple sittings.

They can go online and do this over a two-week period wherever and whenever they want. They could do it in the morning, after work, or on the weekend, and they still get the intended results. It’s really interesting because what we’ve found is that it takes them only a quarter of the time it traditionally did because only the key elements in that module are presented.

Here’s another example from the book.

Ready Mix drivers need to know a lot about their jobs. They drive huge concrete tucks in and out of constructions sites, yet some of them may not have the highest level of education, they may not have even graduated high school. Well, we can go in and instead of these guys having to read through pages and pages of material, we can use imagery and visuals that demonstrate safety hazards instead.

We can show them a real picture of a workplace and ask them, “Take your finger and tap on your device and point to the thing that’s going to harm you.” It’s more than just using pictures and visuals, it’s fully interactive, and anyone can get that.

But it doesn’t stop there, if they get the question right then they earn points, and those points actually tell us a story about that person. Depending on how many points they earn in any given subject or how many times they replay a module, we can actually tell those HR departments how those scores directly translate into the employee’s performance.

It’s all part of a performance metric that we have running in the background.

Like I said before, it’s way beyond just adding points and badges. Although it may feel like that to the player, in the background we actually mine that data to create an accurate profile of that employee.

How did you get good at gamification and why have you made it your mission to help others use gamification to its full potential?

Well, it took 14 years and 200 digital projects to get to this point. I’m considered to be a dinosaur in tech terms.

But I really do think that what I do is the best job in the world because it still surprises me. It changes on a day-to-day basis because of where the technology goes, but a lot of the principles that I was learning for some of our first projects are still the same.

At its core, gamification is about making things more streamline and more fun.

But the most fun part of the job is probably when we get to be really creative. We might pitch a client on a very dark learning module for compliance that has a more adult-type look to the graphics, and then we get to decide how that’s going to look. Those meetings are the most fun by far.

It’s also really exciting when employees start using what we’ve created. That’s pretty cool, that’s probably the best part of my job.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the book so far?

The first reaction I get is that the book is a really simple read even though it discusses some complex digital concepts. I kept the language simple intentionally because I didn’t want this to sound like a textbook. It should be almost like you’re reading a magazine, so that’s been the most positive thing.

I’ve also had people read it who were really skeptical about gamification as a whole or even just the concept of making training resources accessible on a digital platform, but they’ve gotten to the end of the book and thought, “Wow, we could actually do this.”

Readers are also starting to understand that bringing fun to employee learning has had an actual positive return on investment or a bottom-line impact to their organization which has been great.

Employees having fun at a staff meeting.

What would Jason Suriano’s advice be to aspiring authors?

Focus on a subject or subject matter area that you’re really passionate about.

I really enjoy what I do and it’s a lot of work and it’s tough at times, but if you’re passionate about what you do, it won’t seem like work.

My second piece of advice would be to create something of use to the reader. I set out to write something readers can pick up and apply almost immediately. I know that might not be the case with all subject matter, but that worked for me.

Finally, keep it simple. I wanted Office Arcade to be a really easy read because it discusses an area of technology that is full of jargon and complex terms, but if your book isn’t easy to read, it’s not going to be useful.

Get Jason’s new book Office Arcade on Amazon.

Find out more at

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Think sales and design have nothing in common? Think again.

Ashley Welch and Justin Jones, the co-authors of Naked Sales and co-founders of Somersault Innovation, teach you how to incorporate design thinking into your sales strategy to develop deeper relationships with your customers. So deep, in fact, that they will never want to stop working with you.

Whether you work on an inside sales team or with a group of field reps with multimillion-dollar portfolios, this episode of Author Hour will change the way you do business forever.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • The four curiosity prompts that salespeople can practice
  • The value of simply asking, “What is the bane of your existence?”
  • How to put what the customer cares about before the sale

Get Ashley and Justin’s book Naked Sales on Amazon.

Find out more at

How has Naked Sales helped your clients boost their sales?

We just finished working with three different teams, each team was about 12 people, and at the end of working with the three teams, we had them report on their results of working with us over the last three months. Across those three teams, the sales pipeline for them increased by 15 million dollars.

Stacks of coins of increasing height.

Those are pretty significant results on their own, but this also happened during summer months when they typically see their pipeline go down.

So, not only did they gain revenue but by implementing what we’ve outlined in Naked Sales, these teams were able to create an environment of stability during a time when sales were typically very unstable.

Another example I can share involves 33 sales reps that we work with. For this particular company, we always measure what happens in the accounts that these sales reps are working on.

With a group of 33 reps and 66 accounts, their sales pipeline went up 120% over three months.

We then measured what happened to annual contract value over six months, and found that the revenue had gone up by an astounding 170%, adding millions of dollars to their top line.

The results have been pretty phenomenal and I think we’re correct in stating that no team has achieved anything less than a 100% increase in their pipeline when they work through our process with us.

What kind of sales teams do you work with?

Some of them are enterprise sales leaders, which means they only have one or two big multi-million dollar accounts, but other teams focus on much smaller tier accounts and their average account deal may be around 150,000 dollars versus over 1 million dollars.

We also work with inside sales reps who are the ones really dialling for dollars. They don’t have a large revenue charter or no revenue target at all, but they may have a number of touches or people that will respond to them to meet their quotas.

It runs the gamut from enterprise sales to inside sales.

In addition to the size of the account, a sales professional might be leading or managing a sales team. So, we’ve also worked with people at all different stages of the sales process and with different histories in terms of how long they’ve been doing sales.

Some people we work with are at the very initial stages of the sales process; they’re cold calling just to generate some initial interest. Others are at the back end managing relationships and moving transactions across the finish line.

We’ve seen very strong results with our methods for each of these categories of sales or account professionals.

Lastly, we also work across verticals. We may work with professionals focused on health and life sciences, retail, or any number of other industries. If you’re involved in any kind of sales, our methods can help you.

What’s the #1 takeaway from Naked Sales?

We need to strip away all the complexity that is inherent in today’s sales cycle and get it down to its essential human quality, which is focusing on your clients.

As someone in sales, it’s your job to understand what problem your clients are trying to solve and ideally, you should even connect with your client’s customers so that you really understand their business at a fundamental level.

Your client’s customer is the one stakeholder that everybody should care about. You can reduce everything to its simplest form, which I think design helps you do, by focusing on the people that drive and generate value. After that, everything else falls into place.

Focus on what your customer cares about and focus on what your customer’s customer cares about.

Use that information to start a conversation and build a deeper relationship with your client.

What we say is, forget about what you’re selling for a moment, go do some deep discovery on what your client cares about and what your client’s customers care about and use that information to start a different kind of conversation around value.

Two people having a conversation.

It’s a very authentic, real conversation about something the client actually cares about versus talking only about your products and services.

What are the four “Curiosity Prompts” discussed in Naked Sales?

Curiosity prompts are very helpful, small things that salespeople can practice noticing. The great thing about these prompts is that they’re everywhere. There are plenty of opportunities to practice using them.

In every interaction, one or more of these curiosity prompts are present, but we typically have an agenda that might make us blind to them.

Often times we’re already thinking about how we can best position our product or service before we even walk into the meeting room or jump on the call with a client. Because of this singular focus, we miss these really interesting moments that happen when we interact with clients.

To an extent, we can get better at seeing these prompts and using them to steer the conversation organically.

Fundamentally, curiosity prompts make interactions very authentic. It’s instantaneous authenticity. They allow you to build rapport and they open the dialogue to invite clients to share more about what’s going on in their business, what’s important to them, and why.

Each of the four prompts involves anything that catches you as surprising or anything that’s unexpected that comes up in the conversation.

Typically if something surprising or unexpected comes up in a conversation we, as salespeople, tend to ignore that. We don’t talk about surprising things because we like to stick to our agenda. We have to make sure we hit all of our key points in order to drive the sale forward.

But in the process you end up brushing past these really interesting, surprising things that come up and in so doing, you miss an opportunity to learn from the client.

The four prompts we teach people to look out for are:

  1. What surprises you? What comes across as unexpected or atypical?
  2. Where do your clients place value? Has that changed since the last time you spoke with them?
  3. What are there hacks or workarounds that your client is using? Where are people trying to get around the system to make it work for them?
  4. Where do you see inconsistencies? When has your client said one thing but done something else?

A question mark.

In any four of those instances, that’s a great place for you to double down and ask more instead of just moving on.

What’s does a typical Naked Sales conversation sound like?

Let me give you an example.

We had an account executive who was having a really hard time getting a conversation going with Starbucks. Finally, he decided to go and visit a Starbucks store after hours and was chatting up the manager about some pain points.

A Starbucks coffee store.

Eventually, he asked the manager, “What’s the bane of your existence in your role here as a store manager?” And she responded, “The milk binder.” That surprised him because Starbucks is very much seen as a purveyor and seller of coffee, but she was focused on milk.

Instead of just kind of brushing that to the side and keeping the conversation on his agenda, he said “Wow, that surprises me, I wouldn’t have expected you to say that. Can you tell me about this binder?”

She brings it out, it’s a thick binder, plops it on the counter, and then she starts paging through soy milk, skim milk, 2% milk, and so on. At the same time, she’s explainings how each different type of milk has a different process and that they have these work around’s for managing varieties, temperature, storage, expiration dates, and it’s really painful.

After that meeting, he sends an email off to the CIO saying, “Hey, I hear the milk binder could use some innovation” and he gets a meeting with the CIO of Starbucks. The main takeaway is that big things can come from these really small, almost micro-interactions, but only if you’re paying attention.

How can we, as salespeople, add value to our customers?

What do people care about? Let’s use a mortgage company as an example, an account executive we were working with went to a mortgage company and literally just asked them, “What do you care about?”

The mortgage company said, “We care about timely, validated disclosures. Because if we can get a validated disclosure, we can move the mortgage process along more quickly and satisfy our customers. But when they’re held up, that causes problems for all of us.”

The account executive knew that if their software could help them get validated disclosures faster, he could really help solve a real problem for his client.

So many of these things are so simple and yet they get lost in the complexity of all the things we think we’re supposed to know and all the information we have at our fingertips.

The third curiosity prompt is all about hacks. How do you notice when your clients are looking for shortcuts?

One of the best ways to notice workarounds is to get your clients to give you a tour of their office, building, or acility. Or you can ask them to show you have they actually carry out a specific process.

Let’s say you’re interested in how your client forecasts, well, you could simply say, “Can you actually show me how you forecast?”

And this is a real example, we had someone go to a client and ask them a very similar question about loans, well the client pulled up their own loan spreadsheet in Excel and the salesperson said, “Wait a second, you created your own software essentially, or your own process, because your current system doesn’t work for you?” And they said, “Yeah, and this one works great for us.”

Data displayed on a laptop computer.

So that’s a hack.

A hack is a great clue that your client has an unmet need that you may want to pursue further. Bring the hack up in conversation and figure out what it is the client actually wants.

One other point to make is that we’re not always suggesting that there is going to be a direct link between a hack and what you offer as a product or service.

What we suggesting is that by being open to these curiosity prompts you’re allowing yourself to have a very authentic conversation with your client about what they care about. That can then lead you a much bigger conversation regarding an opportunity to work together by starting with something that is authentic and real for them. It’s all about nurturing relationships.

How can we use our client’s inconsistencies to our advantage as salespeople?

When somebody says one thing but then does the opposite, or when they say something is a priority but they are haven’t funded it, that’s when you should be paying attention.

Inconsistencies, like all other curiosity prompts, are a way to start a conversation with your clients. Prompts aren’t designed to help you close deals more quickly with desperate customers; prompts make you a better problem finder.

They increase the likelihood that you will discover even more issues. When you know your client’s business better than they do, that’s when you’ll start having bigger and better conversations with your client. That’s when you’ll be able to start building a deeper rapport with your clients.

What transformations have clients seen once they’ve started using the curiosity prompts?

I’ve already mentioned some of the dollar-figure increases that we’ve seen, and that’s incredibly important because we work in sales, so we’re naturally very motivated by the numbers, but we’ve also seen some really interesting qualitative or experiential shifts in the people that we’ve worked with.

Certainly for people who are a bit newer to sales they’ve come back to us and told us that they’re feeling more confident and authentic more quickly.

Many salespeople come fresh out of some on-boarding training program and they’re given scripts which makes them feel very mechanical, and they don’t like it. After working with us and adopting our methodology, they feel like they can show up as themselves, be genuinely curious and engaged, and have a great time.

For our more tenured professionals, people who have been in the business for decades, it’s really exciting to see them having fun again. They know their products and they know their services very well, they know their clients as well as their industry verticals, and over time that can get quite monotonous, especially when things tend to stay the same.

After working with us, people talk about feeling like they did years ago when they first started. That’s also really exciting to see.

What’s one challenge you can give people this week to help them in their sales role?

I’d love to offer one challenge, and it’s this:

Next time you’re on a sales call, ask one more “why.” Don’t make it complicated, just ask one more “why.”

It could be as simple as, “Why do you do that? Tell me why that’s important to you.”

Ask why one more time than you’re actually comfortable doing and see what happens. Because you’re going to see, it’s going to change your life. Do that at home and do it with your customer.

Secondly, I would like for you, as a salesperson, to find a way to see your client the way their customers do. Whether that means buying their product online or in a store or going out and talking with actual customers and hearing about how your client adds value to their lives.

That is a powerful perspective that most of your competitors won’t bring to the conversation. Talk to your customer’s customer.

Get Ashley and Justin’s book Naked Sales on Amazon.

Find out more at

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Has your company reached its peak and stagnated? Are your competitors disrupting the status quo? Mat Lock and his coauthor Uli Grothe are here to teach you how to get back in the game with their new book, Rocking the Ship.

In this episode, Mat teaches us how he and Uli turn corporate managers into innovators and business model mavericks. By the end of this episode, you’ll have a bulletproof strategy for getting ahead of the competition.

Listen in to Mat to learn:

  • How to go from corporate drone to business model maverick
  • Why fear is a much more effective driver of change than optimism
  • What to do when faced with your nightmare competitor

Get Mat and Uli’s new book Rocking the Ship on Amazon.

Find out more at

How did you first become interested in business management?

I remember it clearly. It was a Sunday morning early in May 2014. I was out riding my bike as I like to do before heading into the office and although it was a beautiful morning, I was distracted because of the realities of where I was in my own management role.

A man bikes down a road.

I was expected to grow the business yet at the same time, the business was calling for greater efficiency, cutbacks, and even redundancies.

It dawned on me that this dichotomy was one of the fundamental reasons why our large organization was seen as being inflexible.

Every time we tried to move in a new direction, to re-create, or be innovative, all of the internal politics grew stronger. 

It just seemed that I was surrounded by barriers, bureaucracy, and BS frankly.

But as I was cycling, I wasn’t alone. I was with a number of other riders, as is the way around Singapore. They would rotate around every couple of minutes and so I’d get to chat with each of them for a little bit. They were all expat corporate manager types.

After a few conversations, it dawned on me that in fact, all of my frustrations—the endless travel, the growing number of calls, and the internal meetings—were shared by all of the other people I was riding with, regardless of what industry they were in.

Business was declining as frustrations and challenges seemed to be increasing. Profits were being squeezed and even though there was a lot of talk about being entrepreneurial, encouraging entrepreneurial spiri,t and being innovative, the opposite seemed to be true for these large corporate organizations.

In spite of a desire to be innovative and cutting-edge, these corporations, including the one I worked for, seemed incapable of coming up with ground-breaking business innovations. That’s when I knew I had to look into this problem more deeply. 

What ultimately led you to write Rocking the Ship?

Well, my business partner Uli had experience running strategy workshops and seminars for executives around the world. 

What was interesting was that while Uli wasn’t directly in a corporate environment, he was very much connected to the corporate way of doing things because his audience was primarily corporate executives.

While I was experiencing these frustrations first-hand, Uli was observing them in his work life from the outside, and we both had the same epiphany: 

Why are all of these talented, experienced, and expensive managers from around the world unable to drive creative business innovation from within their organizations?

Why is it that these managers seem to be suppressed rather than allowed to flourish and grow the businesses that they’re tasked to manage? 

Uli and I decided that it must be possible for established companies to think and act in the spirit of startups. So we set out to find out how that might work.

Established corporations have seemingly everything in their hand, yet it’s the little startups that seem to be capable of dominating traditional industries, or in fact, re-creating and forming new industries. Why is that?

The result of answering that question is our new book.

How do you get organizations to become more innovative?

It’s much more than just a handful of people driving innovation behind closed doors, it’s about the entire mindset of that organization. If you think about any organization, it’s nothing more than a collection of individuals.

We talk about companies not being innovative, but that doesn’t make any sense. It’s the people within the company who are or who are not being innovative.

One of the fundamental challenges with the traditional approach to business innovation is that it focusses on opportunity. Traditional business innovation focuses on what could be, what the potential is. It’s full of optimism and a positive outlook.

What we have discovered over the course of researching and writing this book and through working with clients is that a fear-based approach is far more powerful.

That’s one of the key departures that we make from the traditional approach to innovation.

Why is a fear-based approach to innovation more effective than a positive approach?

Block letters spell the word "fear."

If you think about it, we, as humans, are wired to respond more immediately to danger, say when we get shocked or surprised, than to reward.

When we experience fear, our fight or flight response kicks in. That immediate pulse of adrenaline instantly speeds up our breathing rate and our heart rate.

Now, if we think about something nice that we’d like to have that’s aspirational, we don’t have that kind of response.

From a physiological perspective, we’re wired to respond quicker and more effectively to fear.

Why do traditional corporations shy away from the fear-based approach to innovation?

First, startups are operating in a very different environment than corporations, but going back even further, most children in the western world grow up thinking that fear is something to be avoided. Fear is considered a bad thing, it’s negative, and something that we should avoid.

The reality is that fear is something we should be embracing. Fear is simply another tool you can use. What we do is teach managers how to use fear to playfully attack their own organizations.

Instead of looking for calm seas you should really be attacking your own business model, or the predominant business model in your industry.

Do startups have an advantage when it comes to disruption and innovation? 

Certainly; startups have the liberty of doing whatever they like because they have no connection to a specific industry, they’re not married to the status quo or to any established infrastructure.

They don’t have a large inflexible collection of departments or people involved in organizational politics. They don’t have the bias of thinking they know what the customer wants.

In fact, this brings us to the second thing we discovered while writing the book which is large organizations tend to become very inward focusing when they should be customer-centric.

I’m sure all of your listeners working for corporations can relate to this. Corporations spend an incredible amount of time on internal issues. Think of how much time out of your working day, week, or month is dedicated to internal meetings discussing internal topics.

A corporate boardroom sits empty.

Startups aren’t doing that. They don’t have time to do that. They’re focused on one thing: what their customers actually want.

What types of companies do you usually work with?

We tend to work with medium to large corporate companies.

If I had to pick a number it would probably be around 500 employees and up.

Let me give you an example of one company that we’ve worked with that really took the principles outlineed in Rocking the Ship and ran with them. 

The company is called Zeppelin. 

You might associate Zeppelin with the airships back in the good old day, well it’s the same company. It’s a very classic German family company with thousands of employees these days but a company that stayed true to the spirit of its entrepreneurial founder.

They wholeheartedly adopted the principles in Rocking the Ship, and in fact, it’s now embedded in their company culture. 

During executive meetings the heads of their business units don’t stand up and talk about numbers, they discuss how to continue to be the nightmare competitor of their industry.

Here’s just one example of how that approach changed the way they do business:

A large part of their business now is re-selling heavy industrial equipment, things like mining trucks, bulldozers, and diggers. They sell and service all of this heavy machinery. 

A bulldozer sits at a mining site.

Well, after going through the nightmare competitor exercise outlined in Rocking the Ship, they realized there was a huge gap within the industry that was just waiting for some innovative startup to fill. It was a huge risk to their business. 

One of the challenges they have as a re-seller of such specialist equipment was that many of their customers were buying this equipment and only using for a fraction of the year, perhaps they only needed this equipment for three months of the year. That’s a long time for very expensive equipment to sit idle. 

So the executives at Zeppelin thought, “What would our nightmare competitor look like?” Well, it’s pretty easy to see that any company could easily create the Airbnb equivalent of heavy equipment sharing. Instead of buying these trucks from Zeppelin, a company could simply rent them for three or four months from a competitor when they weren’t being utilized.

What did Zeppelin do? They created a separate company that is the Airbnb of the heavy industrial equipment industry, and it’s become hugely successful.

It may be in conflict with Zeppelin’s other revenue streams but they decided that the fact that it conflicts with their current business doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t become a reality eventually, so better that they do it and let the market decide which model customers prefer.

The worst thing they could have done is sit back and hope no one else comes up with the same idea because clearly, that’s a massive risk to their business. 

Which industry would benefit most from the principles outlined in Rocking the Ship?

One of the joys of Rocking the Ship is that it’s not industry specific. We have yet to find an industry that we can’t apply this to or that the managers within that industry can’t apply it to. For us, our aspiration is to get this into the hands of as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

I don’t know that there is one industry that we could pinpoint because there are so many industries which have so much potential that isn’t being fully used currently.

It really starts with a desire. As long as there’s a hunger, a willingness, and a readiness to put aside the status quo and try something different, there’s no reason why the principles outlined in the book wouldn’t be able to help any organization in any industry. 

Personally, I would love to step into the financial sector.

We’re already starting to see some major disruptive potential, and I’m not just talking about PayPal.

I would love the opportunity to work with one of the big banks. Pick one, it doesn’t matter. Any of the big banks.

If they were able to really embrace the ideas in Rocking the Ship they need to understand that, in the beginning, the initial changes will be pretty uncomfortable because they will challenge a lot of what they do today. But change is already underway in the financial sector, and although it’s happening slowly, managers need to be ready for it; our book can help them prepare for that change. 

What’s one challenge that Mat Lock could give to listeners so they could start practicing what you teach in the book?

Start by asking yourself, “Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?”

In my experience, most people say, “Oh I’m part of the solution of course.” We all like to believe that we aren’t the problem, but if you’ve adopted the nightmare competitor approach and you really look at your organization and your role within that organization from a perspective of change, the results can be quite dramatic. 

I urge listeners to stop and be honest with themselves, think about the daily gripes, the white noise as I would call it, in their business, their grievances, their frustrations.

Ask yourself whether you are part of the system that is facilitating those frustrations or are you really doing something about the problem and making yourself part of the solution. 

When we run workshops around this issue, most people that start out thinking they are part of the solution will switch at the end and say, “You know what? You’re right, I’m part of the problem.”

It’s usually not a deliberate attempt at making life difficult, there’s no bad intent at all. but by default, we often end up being part of the big machine and we dutifully play our part.

So, I challenge listeners to tap into their inner mavericks to drive change from within.

Get Mat’s new book Rocking the Ship on Amazon.

Find out more at

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Even if you’re about to retire, it isn’t too late to start planning. In fact, according to Sam Marrella, author of Your Retirement Game Plan, the best time to consult a financial professional is just before you retire.

Most Americans don’t have a retirement game plan. And because pensions will soon be a thing of the past, we are all going to need additional income streams to supplement our social security.

Check out this episode of Author Hour to learn how to retire with confidence, no matter how soon you plan on leaving the world of work.

Listen in to Sam Marrella to learn:

  • Why it’s never too late to start planning your retirement
  • How to retire comfortably, even if you don’t have a pension
  • Why inflation is the biggest threat to your retirement fund (and how you can beat it)

Get Your Retirement Game Plan on Amazon.

Find out more at 

What does it mean to retire with confidence?

If you don’t have a plan for your retirement, you tend not to be confident in what you’re doing, in the decisions you’re making. The result of that is that you don’t make nearly as good financial decisions when you don’t have a high level of confidence.

I help people create retirement plans that account for the big risks, the unknowns, that they’re about to face in retirement.

What I find is when clients embark on a journey of retirement with confidence in the plan that they have, they enjoy the journey a lot more than those that don’t. So that’s what it means to retire with confidence.

A retiree.

What does a typical client of yours look like?

A lot of times clients ask me the wrong question and that is, “Do I have enough money to retire? I’ve accumulated this much in assets and this much in my different retirement vehicles. Is it going to be enough?”

But that’s entirely the wrong question.

The more appropriate question is, “How much income do I need and where is it going to come from?”

It’s not about how much money you need to retire. All roads lead to income, and when you’re retired, you need to convert assets into predictable long-term income streams.

When you retire, you’re basically saying that you no longer want a paycheck and that you’re going to live off of any income streams that you’ve accumulated over the years. That could be social security, a pension, or any other retirement savings.

So, how can you create income streams from your portfolio that are (a) going to last the rest of your life, and (b) outpace inflation?

First, people need to understand that we’re living much longer lives now than even a generation ago. Even though my clients may have parents in their late 80s, they may not think that they’re going to live to their late 80s or 90s.

A group of retirees sitting outside of their retirement home.

Second, people are pretty good about having enough income today to do the things that they want to do, but many people who come to me just don’t understand the impacts of inflation.

Inflation is kind of like ether. It kills you slowly. It doesn’t smack you in the head like a ton of bricks, it takes you out little by little.

A lot of times I’ll ask my clients, “How long have you lived in your house?” They’ll say, “Thirty years.”

Then I’ll ask them, “Do you remember what your property tax bill was thirty years ago? And do know what your last property tax bill was a few months ago.” They immediately go, “Oh.”

Yeah, that’s inflation.

The government, over the last few years, has told us there’s no inflation and retirees have gotten almost no increase the last four years in their social security payments. That’s just crazy.

How does inflation affect the quality of our retirement?

I don’t know if you food shop, but my wife complains almost every week about how she can’t touch anything in the grocery store under four bucks. That creates a two part problem for retirees because what’s one of that segment of society’s favorite past times? Going out to eat.

Eating out has never been more expensive, which makes sense because the underlying food costs are always increasing. But inflation doesn’t stop there.

Healthcare costs also consume a lot of my client’s financial outflow. There won’t be one person listening today that will argue with me that healthcare costs haven’t risen dramatically.

By definition, that’s inflation.

From one year to the next most people can absorb those small increases, but it’s a huge problem for retirees because they have to absorb these costs over a decade or two.

Here’s how I explain it to my clients: When you retire on a fixed income, you have two types of expenses: “not fun expenses” and whatever is left over, or “fun expenses.”

Every year, those “not fun expenses” increase because of inflation. Since you’re on a fixed income those increases have to come out of your “fun expenses.” Eventually, you’re going to reach the point where all your income is going to your “not fun expenses.”

Well, it’s now too late to get back in the work force, so you may do something like go to Walmart and put smiley stickers on kids just to generate some income just so you have some extra cash to do fun things with.

It’s really sad, and it’s happening more and more because people are living into their 90s.

If you retire at 65, that’s 25+ years of inflation that you have to factor into your retirement planning, but people just aren’t doing that, and it’s a real problem.

How ill prepared are your clients for their retirement journey?

Some people don’t have the education on investing and investments themselves and other people, most people, are very unprepared for what I would call the infrastructure of retirement planning.

They don’t understand the math, they don’t even understand what the risks are and what the hurdles are that exist.

The world is so complicated today. It’s very difficult to be an expert on more than what your vocation is. But I tell clients all the time, the uninformed in this world get shafted. The informed get ahead.

It’s really hard to be informed of all aspects of your retirement planning and your overall financial situation. There are simply too many moving parts. But that’s what I help people understand.

A graph showing the performance of a financial portfolio.

What advice does Sam Marrella have for someone who’s right on the cusp of retirement?

The first thing I do when someone walks into my office is give them a homework assignment.

I simply ask them, “How much income do you need for yourself when you’re retired?”

The answer to that question then guides the rest of their retirement game plan.

A calculator sits next to a financial statement.

Next, we have to define income sources. For example, social security benefits and pension payout, although what I’m seeing more and more is that my clients don’t have a pension in today’s world.

So we start with that core amount of income which is typically less than what they’ve determined to be their minimum amount needed to retire.

In the book, I go through a case study that goes through this process step-by-step but let’s just say somebody needs $5,000 a month and maybe they have $2,500 a month in social security. That’s a gap of $2,500 a month.

The real science behind this is not only filling that gap in year one but making sure that gap is zero for the next 30 years. Like I said, most people have no concept of how that all works and how to do that.

If your desired income when you retire is $5,000 per month, that can turn into $10,000 per month 20 years from now because of inflation. Well, that gap of $2,500 is now a gap of $7,500.

How do you close that gap and make sure it stays closed? We use investment tools to create other income streams that will last your lifetime.

How much influence do our emotions have on our financial health?

One of the big risks of retirement is controlling our emotions because we’re emotionally wired to do things that work against our financial stability.

Even the fact that as soon as you retire that paycheck that you’ve been getting for the last 30 or 40 years stops can be incredibly unnerving because now you’re living off of social security and your portfolio.

So you don’t want to make the decision to retire on a whim, you’ve got to really think long and hard about it. I always tell my clients that timing is everything when it comes to retirement.

If you happen to time your retirement poorly and the economy tanks, well whatever your portfolio was before you retired it’s now dropping in value much faster than you anticipated. You may have once viewed your portfolio as an indestructible rock that could weather any storm, but a bit of economic distress can really do some damage.

So the fact that you’re no longer getting a paycheck and your portfolio just lost a quarter of its value can really mess with your emotions.

When we experience economic distress, the one message we all hear from the media, whether TV, radio, Internet or print, is that the world is going to end.

So what do people do?

They panic and sell out. But I’ve got to tell you, it’s almost impossible to get back to where you were after selling out, and it all stems from not having confidence in your plan and allowing your emotions to overwhelm you. I see it time and time again.

Can you tell us some of your client success stories?

I’ll give you two.

One was quite early in my career when a prospective client came to me wanting to invest money that he was going to roll over from his 401(k) plan. But before any of that happened I said to him, “Before we do that, I need to know a lot more about you.” I asked a lot of questions and I listened.

I always tell people that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them proportionately.

So as I went through a battery of questions, I started to realize that it really didn’t make sense for this guy to retire. I asked him when he was planning on retiring and he responded, “I just did. We just had my retirement party last Saturday”.

He had a couple of weeks vacation and then left. So then I asked him why he wanted to retire. He told me that all of his friends had retired.

Every day was a Saturday for them and he wanted to be like them.

I said, “Yeah, but they don’t have a junior in high school that needs to be educated, nor do they have a home equity loan that needs to be paid off, and nor do they have a wife who’s only 58 years old.”

I encouraged him to tuck his tail between his legs and ask for his job back and to his credit, he really listened and years later when he finally did retire we both agreed that he did exactly the right thing.

Here’s a second story.

I once had a client come in who had already gone to her HR department and told them she was going to retire three separate times. Each time something happened. We had some economic disruption, the markets got crazy, and the negative noise got loud with the media, so she got spooked and decided not to retire.

Well, after I looked over her financials and asked her my usual barrage of questions to formulate a game plan with her, I discovered she was in great shape to retire.

And this is the best part, I can’t even tell you the difference between when she walked in and when she walked out. It was like she was a whole other person. The confidence she had walking out of my office was unbelievable.

She called HR the next morning and retired at the end of the month. This was only a year or so ago and so far, she’s loving retirement.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Not to steal the tagline from Nike, but Just Do It.

You can make all the excuses that you want ahead of time about how you can’t do it, how you don’t have the skills or the time, but if you really feel that way, call Book in a Box and get help.

That’s exactly what I did and what I got in return was a really neat experience. It was very rewarding, it was very fulfilling, and it was exciting.

So, Just Do It. Don’t procrastinate or make excuses or why it won’t work. Find a way.

Raymond James is not affiliated with and does not endorse the book, The Retirement Game Plan. Opinions expressed in the book are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Raymond James. Securities offered through Raymond James Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA/SIPC. Investment Advisory Services offered through Raymond James Financial Services Advisors, Inc. Marrella Financial Group is not a registered broker/dealer, and is independent of Raymond James Financial Services.


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Are you afraid of sales? If the thought of making cold calls for a living makes you anxious then this episode is for you.

In Selling Is Not Optional, Mike Brunel (@BrunelM) shares the key insight that led to his own sales success: How we think about sales has more impact on our success than what we actually sell.

The step-by-step process outlined in his book offers even the most reluctant salesperson a pathway to increased sales, and it’s as easy as having a belief in what you sell and being yourself.

Listen in to Mike to learn:

  • Why selling yourself is just as important as selling the products and services you offer
  • How to turn a rejected sale into an opportunity
  • What it takes to build lasting, value-based relationships that lead to sales success

Get Mike’s new book Selling Is Not Optional on Amazon.

Find out more at

How did you first start selling?

My journey probably started during my teenage years when I used to work in a shearing shed in New Zealand. My job was to stand near the sheep shearer and pick up the fleece, throw it on the fleece table, and clean it up.

A sheep stares off into the distance.

The first thing  I learned from that experience was how to get along with other people because I had to get on with the shearer.

Then, when I reached my later teenage years, I was reasonably good at rugby, so I left school early and traveled across to Australia to play rugby. That’s when I first got involved in selling.

Part of my first job in Australia was to sell stationery to newsagents and stationery shops all over Sydney. It was a lot of door-to-door and shop-to-shop selling. I’d introduce myself and try to build rapport, but it was tough. I was thrown out of shops just because I just didn’t have my script right. 

How tough was that first real sales job?

There’s this particular area in Sydney which is a pretty tough area and a lot of the business owners there keep their shop doors closed permanently. I remember going into one particular stationery shop saying, “Hi, I’m Mike Brunel” and before I could say another word the guy said, “What part of no don’t you understand? Don’t come near me, goodbye.” 

Rejection can really sting, but there are always going to be ups and downs.

Along with the “Who are you? Why are you knocking on my door?” and the “You’re probably the 50th person that’s knocked on my door today.” responses, you also have those clients that you’ve built a rapport with. 

I remember that every Sunday evening I’d take all the products that I was going to sell for the week and I put prices on them. Then I’d put them in a big blue bag and I’d walk around with that bag to businesses and introduce myself. I’d open up the bag and they’d buy my products out of the bag. It was fun.  

Over time, more and more people there got to know me and I gradually started to sell more and more. It was during that first sales job selling stationery in Sydney that I really learned the craft of selling. It was the first part of my journey of learning to be a salesperson.

Was your breakthrough sudden or gradual?

It was gradual.

After that first sales job in Australia, I traveled to the United Kingdom and worked for a business cleaning carpets, but the company was actually looking for someone to go around and sell the company’s services.

Since I had sales experience, I ended up traveling around to meet with some very wealthy people in some of the most amazing homes in London as it was a very top-end company. 

Again, over time I was able to build rapport with these extremely well-to-do people and honed my sales skills.

Eventually, I ended up back in New Zealand with a broken heart selling ad time for a radio station. That was the moment I discovered something that I really loved doing. I ended up staying in that career for several years until I started my own sales consulting company, NRS Media.

Since then, I’ve taken NRS Media overseas to Australia and then into the United States and Canada. After 20 years, we built up the consultancy to over 23 countries offering services in 11 languages. We had pretty close to 200 staff in offices from Atlanta and Toronto to London and Bogota.

So that’s sort of my journey in a nutshell; the lights really came on when I started to build NRS Media, but my journey has been very gradual. 

What’s the #1 takeaway from your book, Selling Is Not Optional?

We’re all in sales; even if you’re not a salesperson, you still have to sell from time to time. The two most important aspects of sales are 1), you have to have the right mindset around selling and 2) you have to believe in what you’re selling and you’ve got to be authentic.

If you have a good product or a good service and you believe in it, then, in a way, you’re obligated to go and tell people about it. 

My book really teaches people how to have the right mindset around sales, how to learn about your product, and the importance of having good questions when you go and meet clients. I’ve learnt all of these first-hand during my many years in sales, and so I lay out many different types of tools that you can use to approach sales.

But if I were to pick one takeaway it would be this: “Don’t call it sales, call it relationships.” A lot of people get hung up on the word “sales,” but again, we’re all in sales. If you want to call it what it really is, call it “relationship building.”

A man reaches out for a handshake.

The underlining principle of the book is that as a salesperson, you’re job is to create lasting relationships with your clients, and there are a lot of tools that can help you do that.

How can someone start to shift from that traditional “sales” mindset to a “relationship” mindset? 

There are three key tenets.

The first one is to keep your agreements.

One of the biggest things I notice when I travel around the world and train salespeople is that they say they’re going to do something and then they don’t do it. If you say you’re going to be somewhere or if you say you’re going to meet someone, then be there on time. 

My dad always used to say to me, “Being on time is being early.” It’s incredibly simple, but also very effective.

The second tenet is that relationships don’t end if you don’t get the sale. Often, when I go and meet with a client and come out without a sale but I’ve still had a good discussion regardless of that, I’ll send them a thank-you note.

A handwritten thank-you note that I then put in the mail and send to these clients goes a really long way for relationship building because no one does it. I’ll send two or three notes a month along with an occasional “how are you doing?” note. Again, it’s all about relationships. 

The final tenet is that people buy you just as much as they buy your product or service, so you’ve got to be authentic. You have to learn to be yourself.

You have to be true to yourself more than anything, and what I mean by that is that you’ve got to learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

If you know your product and if you believe in that product then that authenticity will actually start to come through automatically.

How do you stay relaxed enough when meeting clients to come across as authentic? 

One thing that I often teach salespeople is don’t listen to sell, listen to hear.

If you’re presenting a product or a service to a client, you’ve got to be present and you got to actually hear what they’re saying to you. 

It’s also incredibly helpful to believe in your product. If you show up to a client meeting and you’re excited, motivated, and believe that your product will add real value to them, then any nerves you might feel won’t matter because that authenticity will show through. 

Finally, a lot of people let the fear of rejection hold them back, but at the end of the day, the worst case scenario is that the client says no.

You have to get comfortable asking for what you want in business, so ask for the sale. You do that enough times and those nerves will disappear. 

What’s Mike Brunel’s parting piece of advice for anyone looking to get into sales?

I had one particular client who wasn’t willing to change their mindset around selling. They just didn’t see that selling was actually about building relationships. They were stuck in the traditional way of thinking that people buy on price and price alone. 

But people also buy on value and they buy based on the salesperson too. You can’t just sell your product, you have to sell yourself in addition to your product or service.

Great salespeople know it’s all about relationships and that lore of reciprocity is so true. The more that you give in some way, the more that comes back. So really think about how you can add value to your clients, not just through your product or service, but also in other areas. It could be as simple as bringing an extra coffee to your next client meeting.

Two coffee cups sit side-by-side.

Get Mike’s new book Selling Is Not Optional on Amazon.

Find out more at

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How often do you find yourself judging others? Blaming others? Criticizing yourself? Name-calling? Or getting defensive when judging what’s right or wrong?

These are all signs that you may not be communicating as effectively as you could be. The art of nonviolent communication offers us a better way. It’s a means of communicating based on compassionate connection and a different way of looking at the world.

For today’s episode, we’re talking about Nonviolent Communication, an international bestseller which has been translated into over 30 languages.

The author of the book, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, sadly passed away a few years ago, so our conversation today is with Thom Bond, founder of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication.

Listen in to Thom to learn:

  • How to connect with others on a more human level
  • What to do when faced with conflict in your personal and professional relationships
  • Why our worldview may be increasing the amount of conflict in our lives

Get Dr. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication on Amazon.

Find out more at

What sort of impact did Nonviolent Communication have on you when you first read it?

When I was 12 years old, I remember picking up Life Magazine. In that issue, there were photographs of what was known as the My Lai massacre. It was the first time in my life that I had seen the reality of war to that extent, what people were actually out there doing to one another. It was really a life changer for me. I was in shock that this was really happening and that people could do this to one another.

A US soldier stands next to the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre.

I thought, “This is crazy!” because this is not a necessity. This isn’t something that has to happen. There’s got to be another way for us to be living out our lives so this doesn’t happen.

I remember talking about those photographs with grown-ups and they all responded similarly, “No. No. This is what we do here. This is a part of life.”

That was a real moment for me because I really departed from that mentality. I refused to agree with that.

So here I was at 12 years old, not really understanding why humans did this to each other. Then, 30 years later, I read Nonviolent Communication, and I was like, “Whoa! There it is.”

Inside this book is an incredibly simple idea, but I really do consider it probably the greatest discovery of the 20th century. It’s an idea that Marshall Rosenberg came up with.

Everybody is doing the best they can to get through life and to meet their needs. While we all share feelings and needs, we often (or we can) cause harm to others in the pursuit of those needs.

What Marshall figured out is that we can pay attention to our needs in such a way that we’re able to reorganize and meet our needs without causing harm.

We have a natural tendency to make enemies out of the people who are causing us harm, and we break off communication when that happens.

When I read that basic idea I was like, “Whoa! This is it.” Marshall figured out a way to look at somebody, or a group of people that have done things that are absolutely horrible, with a sense of connection and compassion.

Not that it’s easy to do this, but he figured out a way for us to really focus our attention so that we’re more likely to be able to come up with solutions and less likely to see each other as enemies.

That was huge for me. I was like, “This is it. Thank you. I’ve been looking for this for so long.”

In other words, here are a set of concepts, ideas, and practices that we can use to change how we go about being humans when we’re facing conflict to avoid violence. Here is a set of guiding principles that can make war obsolete.

Did you ever get to meet Dr. Rosenberg?

After reading the book, I became very involved in learning all I could about Dr. Rosenberg’s work. Back in 2001 or 2002 there were maybe a handful of people in New York City that knew about it. It was mainly a West Coast phenomenon at that point.

But I made a great effort to learn all I could about Marshall’s work; in fact, a few months after I had read the book I found myself in a car next to him after picking him up at the airport.

I got in contact with Marshall through some folks in California and we got together when he ended up coming to New York. It was a pretty odd experience to read his book and next thing I know I’m picking him up from the airport.

We were fast friends as they say.

Before we left the airport I already had this amazing sense of friendship. We both have an odd sense of humor and we just hit it off.

How did your life change after you read Nonviolent Communication?

It would almost be easier to talk about the parts that didn’t change.

The first phase for me was a shift in how I viewed my needs.

A lot of us, myself included, do things because we think we should. We do this or that because it’s the right thing to do, we think it’s good and just and the right thing to do, so we do it.

But Marshall offered a slightly different perspective.

First, we should start looking at what it is that we desire. What are our needs? All humans share some pretty basic needs. Things like love, creativity, air, and water.

Next, we need to determine what it is that we value in life and what needs of ours are being met versus what needs aren’t being met fully.

So, instead of doing something purely because we thing we should do it, or because it’s the “right” thing to do based on what society tells us we should be doing, we can start acting based on what we want our lives to look like and what we want the world to look like.

We can then start asking ourselves, “What is it that I want to have to happen in my life and in the world? Do I want more creativity? Do I want more self-care? Do I want more consideration? Do I want to give more? Get more?”

Two hands meet to form the shape of a heart.

Marshall gave us this new framework to start looking at how we go about living life, and that’s what I did. I started looking at not what I should or shouldn’t do because those are inherited ideas that have nothing to do with me, or very little, potentially, and in fact could be harmful to me.

So much of the conflict that we experience comes from those very ideas of should and shouldn’t.

One particular area that I started to focus on was self-care. I thought, “Well, I think I might want to take better care of myself.” That became probably the first major campaign in my life that came about because of this shift in perspective.

What does better self-care look like to you?

Funny you should ask. I love how this world works.

I remember sitting there on my couch in my apartment in New York thinking, “I just don’t feel that great right now. I would just love some nurturing. It’s just been so long.” I wasn’t in a relationship at the time and I didn’t live with my parents anymore.

So I started thinking about what nurturing even looks like. What does self-care look like?

In my case, I looked around my apartment and noticed that it didn’t really look like my apartment. It didn’t feel like home to me. So, I redecorated. It looked like Thom getting a new apartment. At that moment, that simple act was what better self-care looked like to me.

The interior of an apartment.

How do we make war obsolete?

First, we have to ask, “What is it that we’re trying to accomplish with war?”

We’re all trying to meet our needs and that is the imperative of life. So, if we try to stop a group of people from meeting their needs, that’s going to create conflict and often violence.

War isn’t caused by evil or religious fanaticism. War isn’t caused by sexism or racism. War is a by-product of two groups of people each trying to meet their own needs. But the truth is that we’re all human beings, all of us are trying to accomplish the same thing.

If we can see each other as human beings then we might just be able to pause and say, “Okay. Well, maybe we don’t have to kill each actually. Maybe we can figure out what each of our needs are that we’re trying to meet by killing each other and think of a different way to meet those needs.”

I know that sounds crazy simple, and I can tell you that it is, but it’s also crazy difficult.

The second thing we have to do is recognize that there are no evil people in the world. There are only people and some of those people are in pain.

What Marshall did is he gave us a choice.

I can choose to see you as somebody in pain who’s acting in ways that aren’t meeting your needs, or I can choose to see you as an evil person. I can choose to see you as a fanatic. I can choose to see you as somebody who’s out to get me, an enemy.

That’s how we start the process of eliminating war, with this different way of thinking.

What can someone do this week to start shifting their mindset around conflict?

The first step is to read Marshall’s book. Go get a copy and read the book. You can do that right now.

But even if that’s too much, let’s just try a quick practice. There’s an online exercise that anybody can do. It can be found at, and it will give you an experience of what’s at the core of Marshall’s book

That main message is that we get to choose what we focus our minds on. That’s the first thing to understand. If we realize that focusing on one thing produces a different effect than focusing on another thing we start to realize, “Wow! I’m empowered. I’m not given my thoughts. I can choose them!”

What can we do to avoid bringing conflict into our daily lives?

It’s all about having a greater awareness of what our needs are. Essentially, it’s about figuring out what’s driving our actions. We make a lot of decisions unconsciously, but if we bring a level of awareness surrounding our needs, we start to understand why we make certain decisions.

Get your needs glasses on, right? Once you can see why you’re making the decisions you’re making and feeling the emotions you’re feeling, in other words, once you have self-empathy we can start making that connection between the fact that I’m angry or I have a judgment, and what need I’m not meeting.

We can then ask ourselves, “What is it that I’m loving that has me so pissed off right now? What do I love? What is so important to me? What do I want so dearly in my life and on this planet that I feel this pissed off?”

If I’m angry at somebody, I know I have an unmet need. I just have to figure out what it is so that I can address it in a different way than being angry at somebody.

How has this book helped others transform their lives?

On example that pops right into my head is about a couple who were getting divorced. They had three children, and when I met them they were in intense conflict. The father had no visitation rights with the children and the mother was suffering financially. As far as they were concerned, they were ruining each other’s lives and couldn’t even look at each other.

A couple fighting.

When we met, I simply brought their focus right to Marshall’s work and asked them, “Is it that you both need safety?” “Yes.” “Is it that you both need security?” “Yes.” “Is it that you both need connection?” “Yes.”

We were able to identify the needs that were important to each individual. We identified which needs were causing so much upset and conflict.

Of course, no one complains about connection, love, or security, so once that happened, once they were able to name each other’s needs, they were able to come up with a plan so that they could both have their children in their lives and their sense of security back.

They figured out how to remove conflict from their relationship once they saw each other as humans with needs just like you, just like me, just like one another. To this day, there’s a family that’s way more functional than it would have been otherwise, and there’s a father who knows his children, who might not if it weren’t for this.

So to me, that was huge.

What would happen if journalists brought this way of thinking it to their work?

It’s only a matter of time.

Marshall’s work continues to grow and impact more and more people. It’s simply a matter of time before the president of the United States has been raised by parents who practice his work.

If journalists start approaching their work with this view then it’s going to change what we talk about and what we’re interested in. It would change the way we look at the world for the better.

Can you tell us the story behind the book? Why did Marshall Rosenberg write Nonviolent communication?

Marshall Rosenberg was raised in Detroit; he was a tough guy. He would get into fights. He was a hockey player, but he’s also a really bright, bright guy. He ended up going to college and becoming a therapist, a psychoanalyst actually.

After so many years of psychotherapy, he started hating the job because he didn’t really feel like he was accomplishing anything. Eventually, he was drawn to his life work, which was figuring out what brought people together.

What are the things that bring us together and what are the things that drive us apart?

That was the start of a journey that would eventually lead him to his ideas on the link between human needs and conflict. The result, of course, was Nonviolent Communication, which is now in its third edition and has sold millions of copies all over the world.

Get Dr. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication on Amazon.

Find out more at

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