39 Rick Rule: Deep Understanding of Markets Opens a Pathway to Entrepreneurial Leadership

Rick Rule is CEO at Sprott US Holdings. His lifetime focus on natural resources finance enabled him to carve a unique pathway to entrepreneurial success. Like many entrepreneurial journeys, Rick’s had some twists and turns. Here are some of the key stages.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Find out early what you love. Rick enjoyed the outdoors, nature and therefore natural resources, the associated science of efficient and effective use of natural resources, and finance. All of us have a combination of likes and preferences that may stimulate us but may not initially appear to present us with an entrepreneurial recipe. But as Curt Carlson explained in episode #34, combining knowledge from different people and fields can result in compounding insights.

Rick Rule's Entrepreneurial Leadership

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Combine Knowledge In New Ways. Rick combined natural resource science with principles of corporate finance, specifically debt and equity finance for extractive industries. As a result of the special properties of natural resource markets, and firms’ needs for customized financing, an opportunity niche emerged. Rick’s application of his special combination of knowledge placed him in a competitively advantaged position.

Learn By (Hard) Experience. Rick learned not to confuse a bull market with brains, as he puts it. He did business through a complete commodity market cycle in the 1970’s through the early 80’s, experiencing volatility and ups and downs first hand. Theory is no substitute for experience. Nevertheless, his knowledge of Austrian Business Cycle Theory, Austrian Price Theory (“the cure for high prices is high prices, and the cure for low prices is low prices”) granted him a superior perspective in interpreting market signals.

Develop Deep Market And Customer Understanding. In his focus market, Rick developed a business segmentation that focused on participant firms of a defined size (<$250MM market cap). He studied those customers and understood their circumstances. The consequence of limited information flow (data about these firms did not flow easily between conventional market analysts), was that the firms had limited access to capital. Rick was able to overcome these information gaps, making him a preferred supplier of scarce finance.

Identify A Need You Can Fill For Your Carefully Selected Audience In Your Carefully Selected Market Segment. The business model came together in a way that Rick describes as “lender of last resort to high-quality management teams in high-quality companies that were not popular” and were therefore capital constrained. In addition, Rick’s understanding of business cycles and commodity prices further strengthened his confidence in lending when others would not, the market rewards for which turned out to be high.

Combine Empathy, Trust and Courage. Rick confirmed the E4E emphasis on empathy as an important skill for entrepreneurs – primarily, in his case, empathy for the customers whom he financed. He sought to combine empathy with trust: in a market where information is scarce, it is imperative to have trust in the sources. “Without trust,” says Rick, “I have no information, and therefore I can not make decisions.” The third emotional attribute he identified is courage – the courage to have the conviction that your model indicating a future upcycle or price rise is well constructed, and not to second-guess it during the time that the trade is underwater.

We’ve summarized these journey milestones – and the Austrian foundations underlying them – in this free PDF download. 


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31. Per Bylund on Big Data vs. Big Ideas

Wouldn’t it be nice to predict the future? It’s tempting to reach for the analytical tools and big data sets that are newly available and for which big claims are made regarding their predictive capabilities. For entrepreneurs, small businesses and corporate innovation teams, rich qualitative data are far more relevant and collecting these data is far more productive. By this we mean talking to customers and potential customers, observing behaviors rather than collecting clickstream data, and immersing yourself in the unpredictable subjectivity of the consumer.

In this week’s Economics For Entrepreneurs podcast, Dr. Per Bylund analyzes what big data can and can’t do for entrepreneurs and the innovation process, and explains how qualitative data can generate big ideas for the future.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Predictive analytics can’t predict! That was Dr. Per Bylund’s provocative introduction to our discussion of the uses and drawbacks of big data in the context of the entrepreneurial mission.

The claims made on behalf of the analytical powers of big data may be exaggerated, and entrepreneurs should learn what they can and can not expect from the application of big data analytics to business. Otherwise there is the chance of both error and wasted spending on the tools of business intelligence. It’s important to distinguish between the different roles of multiple data types.

Big Data vs Big Ideas Chart

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Pattern recognition is not prediction. Dr Bylund contrasted what Big Data can and can’t do for entrepreneurs. He used an example of analytics predicting the outcomes of future NFL games. Here there are large sets of historical data on players, teams, plays and previous outcomes. There are limited potential outcomes (e.g. one team will win the game – there is no third team that will unexpectedly turn up to change the range of possible outcomes). The predictive analytics got the outcome right about 75% of the time. In a world of more open-ended results (e.g. predicting the outcome of a multi-team tournament), big data could be expected to be right fewer times. There is danger in over-reliance on the law of large numbers and tendencies like reversion to the mean. Pattern recognition from historical data sets (which is what big data does well) is not prediction.

In fact, in the world of economics and entrepreneurship, there is no prediction. Entrepreneurs deal with social phenomena that emerge from individuals’ actions and interactions, across billions and trillions of instances. Entrepreneurial outcomes depend on how people act, and how they act depends on their feelings, how they see the world (subjectivism) and what they feel like doing. We can’t know or predict that. There may be some general rules that apply in many cases (for example, raising prices rapidly and significantly in a competitive market will, all other things being equal, result in a reduced unit volume of sales). But those rules don’t predict the decisions of specific individuals in specific cases.

Mainstream economists and central planners long for a mechanistic world: turn a dial, get a result. But this approach is not valid. In the economy or any market, all variables are dependent on all other variables. Everything affects everything. The consequences of any action – like central bank interest rate tinkering – affect different people in different ways, and whoever is affected first or last will experience different consequences and react in different ways.

The core of the issue is that human behavior is unpredictable. Subjective choices can’t be predicted.

Prediction implies precision, and that’s not available.

Yet the entrepreneur must deal with the future. The entrepreneur seeks to produce a good or a service that consumers will consider valuable at some point in the future. Even if they tell you today that they will value your offering in the future, they may change their minds.

Is there any contribution that big data can make, any help that it can offer? We discussed these areas:

  • It’s hard to know what people might want in the future. But it might be possible to identify what specific people will not want, based on their past behaviors. Data can show you which purchases cluster together, and which don’t. Beef purchasers may also buy red wine. Vegans won’t buy beef. Facebook and other ad targeting tools (which use big data effectively) can help you avoid marketing beef to vegans or pasta to keto diet followers.
  • Data can sometimes detect dissatisfactions, which are the universal raw material for entrepreneurs.  Analysis of sentiments expressed in reviews can guide you in the right direction. Writing a negative review on Yelp or Trip Advisor is both a behavior and an expression of sentiment and data analytics can detect patterns here. But Dr.Bylund advises us that it can only provide a guide – there is no substitute for talking directly to consumers, human to human.
  • Data can help with segmentation. If you want to better understand a geographical market segment or a demographic segment or a behavioral segment, there are lots of data that can detect the differences between segments, and this can help you with targeting of communications (but not necessarily with the message).
  • Quantitative data can be combined with qualitative data to sharpen insights. Dr. Smita Bakshi, in our episode #24 described how analysis of student performance data (50% of computer science students don’t complete their first-year course) combined with personal discussions with students in class, delivered an empathic understanding of their struggles, from which her team developed a winning interactive learning tool for computer programming languages.

Sometimes an entrepreneur can skip the big data analytics, but never the empathic diagnosis. Entrepreneurship consists of understanding the mind of the consumer and understanding the economics of the marketplace. Where the market is heading and what will be in consumers’ minds in the future are more the realm of judgement than analytics.

Entrepreneurs behave differently than dig data-driven large corporates. They think harder about the customer, they study human motivation, they utilize the rich qualitative data that comes from talking to customers, and they concentrate their capital and resources on developing and extrapolating their customer understanding. They uncover subjective value – the value that only exists in the mind of the consumer. Imagination is the key to the future. Entrepreneurs try to succeed in bringing about that imagined future. Big data might help them avoid mistakes, but it’s impossible to rely on the past to produce the future.


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30. Trini Amador on Brand Building

In Austrian Capital Theory, Brands are valuable financial assets. Brands are architected in response to the subjective value preferences of consumers, and the more accurate the responsiveness, the higher, faster, longer and more reliable are the future cash flows. Brands are promises of value and, when the promise is kept, the result is delighted, enthusiastic and loyal consumers.

In the current episode of the E4E podcast, global branding expert Trini Amador explains how every business and every entrepreneur can methodically build a strong brand to deliver consumer value and unleash cash flow.


Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

The entrepreneur makes a promise that the consumer will experience value. The brand is the promise. Here are the principles for building a strong brand.

There are two pillars to the construction: Relevance and Differentiation.

Brand Uniqueness Blueprint

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Pillar 1: Relevance. It’s central to economics because economics deals with individuals and their preferences and their choices. Your brand is not for everyone, it’s for specific individuals. It’s important to know them and understand them deeply.

Relevance Box 1: Core Target

Many brand owners think that the more customers they target, the more they will sell. The opposite is true. Define your target audience as narrowly as possible.

Relevance Box 2: Core Needs and Insights

Strong brands are built on unique entrepreneurial insights into the motivations of their core target audience. Entrepreneurs use the deductive method: observing behavior and deducing motivations from those observations, using tools like the Means-End Chain.

Relevance Box 3: Customer’s Frame Of Reference

This component is based on the Austrian value principle that the customer finds value in meeting a need in a way that is better (for them) than direct substitutes, indirect substitutes, or than non-purchase or deferred purchase.

Pillar 2: Differentiation

In Pillar two, we build an implementation of the Austrian principle of uniqueness in your entrepreneurial offering. A brand is the ideal platform for communicating uniqueness.

Differentiation Box 1: Brand Promise

The brand promise is to deliver in a unique way the highest possible level of benefit, which is an emotional benefit, the consumer feeling that your offering assures they will achieve their highest fulfillment.

Differentiation Box 2: Brand Delivery.

Brand delivery is how the brand keeps the promise it makes.

Differentiation Box 3: Brand Character

Customers are people and they relate to brands subjectively – almost as if the brand were a person.

Building the 6-Box Brand Foundation brings clarity about what your brand stands for, defines your competitive advantage, and ensures that your entire team knows what they must deliver, and what the customer expects.

Download the set of free resources here to help you implement your own brand-building process.


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29. Per Bylund on the Critical Importance of Executional Excellence and How To Achieve It

Have you heard of the knowing-doing gap? Accumulating unique knowledge – expertise, processes, experience, skills, recipes, qualifications etc – is important, as we always emphasize at Economics For Entrepreneurs. In business, that’s half the story. The second part is effective action, judged by results. Knowing what to do translated into actually doing it. Becoming not just a learning organization but a doing organization.

Dr. Per Bylund framed it this way: having a great idea for a business is not the crucial element for success. It’s whether you can pull off the idea in implementation. That’s what investors and customers are looking for – not the idea, but executing the idea.

Key Takeaways & Actionable Insights

Dr. Bylund guides us with 5 Austrian action principles.

5 Ways to Analyze Executional Excellence

Principle 1: Consumer sovereignty. The consumer is boss and decides whether a business is executing well, i.e. to customers’ satisfaction. The only purpose of a business is to make and keep customers. Amazon calls this customer obsession – everything starts and ends with the customer, and the customer is central to every decision, in every resource allocation, and is invisibly present in every meeting and presentation. Does your company act this way? Are you certain you know and understand your customers’ needs and preferences, and their hopes and dreams? Are you deeply immersed in customer knowledge? Do you talk one-on-one with customers as often as possible? Do you go out to the building sites where they use your equipment, or to the offices where they use your software, or to the homes where they consume your food and beverage products? The consumer culture is exemplified by anthropology – getting out there with your users. Jeff Bezos observes that consumer-obsessed companies act differently. What actions are you taking to observe, understand and serve individual customers better?

Principle 2: Subjective Value. The consumer or customer you are getting close to by implementing Principle 1 is the decision-maker on whether or not your firm is providing value. Their decision is subjective – it’s entirely theirs, entirely emotional, entirely about their perception. Do you know what factors are the most persuasive and influential in creating a positive perception? We discussed a case study of premium vodka. The basic liquid is to a great extent an undifferentiated commodity. Differentiation comes from the varied subjective experience a consumer can feel in ordering and consuming and sharing a brand of vodka. How much of that perception is affected by the bottle shape design and the label design? How much by the social prestige of the location where the brand is served? How much by the consumer’s perception of the merit of the people who drink this brand? It’s hard to know but necessary to find out.

One route to implementation success in business is to manage expectations. Find out what customers expect, then make a promise to meet those expectations and keep your promise. So often in business, promises are made but not kept. That means you created an expectation, then did not meet it. You should make sure to do the opposite.

Principle 3: Dynamic Resource Allocation. The Austrian principle is that the firm’s capital and resources are, at all times, a reflection of the market and of customer preferences. What does that mean and how can a firm activate this principle? In practice it means two things. First, do not lock in to any asset or resource that is difficult to change or adjust on short notice. Stay flexible at all times. Second, make sure that you are collecting market signals – data – that tell you what you need to know about customer preferences today (not yesterday) and will provide you with insights into where they might shift tomorrow. Based on those insights, conduct experiments and tests that can be quickly scaled up when they show results, and quickly shut down when they don’t. If you find yourself responding to changes in customer preferences – or, even worse, changes in competitors’ behavior that seem to be more responsive to customers than your own – it’s too late. Get comfortable with continuous change.

Principle 4: Dynamic organization. How can you identify and eliminate all the barriers to your team’s empowerment to serve the customer in the way the customer prefers? Often, the barriers can be found in rules. In customer service, for example, there may be rules about the level of decision-making delegated to a customer representative, or even the amount of time a representative can spend on the phone with a customer. Examine all your rules, standardized protocols and bureaucratic structures. For each one, ask: does this contribute to the satisfaction of the customer? Does it produce customer value? Or is it to cut cost and minimize risk? Cutting costs will never add value. To be great at implementation, examine all practices to make sure they are value-creating and not value-consuming. Who decides? Your customer.

Perhaps you have employees who are not value-creating. You can’t afford them.

Principle 5: Measuring The Right Things. With metrics, most business advice is to be objective and numeric. You are advised to measure sales, profits, distribution, etc., and take surveys of customer satisfaction expressed as numbers on a scale or percentages compared to a norm. For great execution, it is far more important to measure subjective value, and to shed light on what the firm is doing right in the creation of consumer value and where it is falling short. This is a challenge, but not an impossible one. There are places to look, such as sources of spontaneous praise. Your firm’s Trip Advisor comments from recent visitors, for example, if natural, honest and spontaneous, can be great indicators for you. The same goes for other spontaneous commentary channels. Commit to conducting a minimum number of in-person one-on-one customer conversations every week. Summarize them. Conduct sentiment analysis. Try to develop data on the direction that sentiment is trending – modern tools can do this via language analysis and emotional content analysis. Commit your firm to becoming the best at monitoring, projecting and analyzing subjective customer perceptions.

Do you have any experience of measuring subjective value creation? What has worked for you?


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28. Steve Phelan on Negotiation As A Core Capability For Entrepreneurial Success

Negotiation is a capability that entrepreneurs use almost all the time. It’s an area of entrepreneurial performance where an understanding and application of Austrian Economics can be very helpful.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

It’s all Austrian! Negotiation skills represent one of the resources entrepreneurs must assemble and maintain. The value of any resource is subjectively determined, and so the price is never fixed, it’s subject to negotiation. Two people can have different subjective opinions about the value of a resource – and those opinions can change, e.g. during the course of a negotiation, when one agent changes the opinion of another.

Negotiation starts on Day 1 and never stops. Founders deciding to set up a company negotiate over who plays what role, who gets what share of the equity, and so on. From Day 1, the entrepreneur bargains for advantage, putting the best case forward at all times, and always thinking ahead to the next negotiation.

In Bargaining For Advantage (Revised Edition, 2018), Richard Shell lays out 6 principles of negotiation that Professor Steven Phelan, himself a teacher of negotiation strategies to entrepreneurs in business school, reviewed and illustrated with examples.

Subjectivism: Know Your Own Bargaining Style. The entrepreneurial journey starts from self-assessment: Who Am I? Some people are uncomfortable with negotiation, and sellers might take advantage by making only fixed offers. There is a competitive negotiation style and a co-operative negotiation style, and some points on the spectrum between them. (Most professional negotiators think of themselves as co-operative.) Don’t feel bad if you hate the confrontation of traditional negotiation. You don’t have to drive the hardest bargain. You can control the timeline for greater reflection. You can prepare yourself well to reduce your anxiety. Know yourself, accept your self-knowledge, and learn how to apply it for advantage.

Know your ends and select the best means. Ends-means analysis is fundamental to entrepreneurship, as it is to negotiation. Identify your own expectations, set your goals high, and be ambitious. Remember that a goal is not a fixed point – like a price to settle on. It’s complex and layered and can have a lot of non-monetary components. These are the elements you can vary to adjust the bargaining advantage in your favor, by using them as concessions, or trading them for a better deal. For example, you may be able to reach the price you want by providing seller financing.

Use external – and authoritative – standards and norms to help you. Norms can narrow the uncertainty in negotiation for both sides. For example, real estate agents use “comps” (recent sales prices of comparable homes in the local area) to narrow the range of possible prices in a transaction. Of course, there are multiple norms and standards that could be used – like price per square foot, or lot size, or views – and you should know them all, select your preference, and then argue persuasively in favor. Pick a standard that shows your offer in the best light.

Time preference – thinking long term. A negotiation might seem like the very definition of short-term: you want a good outcome now! But is this the last time you’ll negotiate with this party? Does your agreement in this situation potentially affect future negotiations? If you bargain a new hire down to the lowest compensation level, do you risk them leaving in the future and jeopardizing a team project? Think of the second order consequences and the lifetime of your business. It’s a mark of the good economist – and the good negotiator – to always think in the long term.

Use empathy as the planning basis of all negotiations. We’ve emphasized many times that the core skill of the entrepreneur is empathy – understanding the feelings of the other party, whether that’s a customer or a party to a negotiation. Why is the other party negotiating with you at all? What do they want – or need? Get to know them as people. Take them to dinner. Meet their family. Can you ethically meet their personal needs as well as their corporate needs? You can never eliminate all uncertainty, but deeply understanding the other party can go a long way towards doing so.

Find your leverage: the situational advantage to reach agreement on your terms. Of course, leverage in a negotiation can be positive or negative at the outset, depending on the situation. You should always look for ways to reduce the value of the other party’s alternatives (that’s their leverage) and increase the value of their own. Put scarcity on your side by having more than one bidder for what you are offering. Use time – leverage can change over time, especially if you can wait and the other party can not. One useful tool is BATNA – best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If you have more alternatives than the party on the other side of the table, that gives you leverage.

Use the six principles to prepare a strategy. Shell recommends that you make your opening position as aggressive as you can, and support it with the best norms and standards you can compile. That will put the other party in the position of having to find contrary logic as a counter – it’s called anchoring: your opening bid becomes the anchor for locating the range of negotiation. Never meet in the middle. Let the other party concede first. Shell refers to if-then thinking. If you’re called upon to make a concession, then you know exactly what counter-concession you are going to call for from the other party. Never concede voluntarily, always ask for a responding concession.

Have a specific negotiation plan in mind. Use the accompanying planning tool, adapted from Richard Shell’s book. Physically fill it out, use empathy, acknowledge uncertainty, gather as much information as you can, find your own norms and predict which ones the other party will use, find a good agent if you need one. Planning in advance will give you confidence and help you succeed, even if you don’t relish negotiating.

Use this 10-step planning guide to plan your next negotiation.


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27. Cheryl and Cliff Pia on the Economics of Creativity

Every entrepreneurial initiative is creative. There’s also an entire creative industry in which entrepreneurs can participate and succeed. Today we follow the journey of two very successful founders – Cheryl and Cliff Pia of The Pia Agency.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

There are many, many pathways of entrepreneurial opportunity in creative services, where it is eminently possible to succeed on talent, where big companies are eager to work with small creative companies and individuals, where agile low-overhead business models are thriving, and where technology is the entrepreneur’s friend. 

It’s an exciting time for entrepreneurs to be in the creative industry, say Cheryl and Cliff Pia, founders of the Pia Agency, a leading video and audio production firm working with many of the leading brands and largest companies worldwide. It’s an industry of rapid change – for example from the orderly process of television advertising to the frantic chaos of social media and web advertising and YouTube and Twitter videos. Change is confusing and scary for established businesses, and therefore full of opportunity for innovative entrepreneurial creativity. Centripetal forces of decentralization are breaking up the “Big Agency” structures and their retainer fee-based business model. If you can become the best at a specialized service, many doors are open.

The pathways of the creative industry often start very differently than for more traditional industries. Cheryl and Cliff provided E4E listeners with their creative origin stories.  

Cheryl & Cliff Pia's Entrepreneurial Journey

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Cliff played in bands and as a studio musician. He played some jazz and learned the “jazz method” (you don’t know what is coming next so relax and pick it up when it comes to you). He performed comedy in clubs and learned how to act on his intuition, read the mood of the room, and be hyper-responsive to audience input. By “always sitting next to the sound engineer” – and asking questions – he learned the technology and techniques of recording.

Cheryl worked in the music industry because that’s what her friends were involved in, and then in the film industry. She learned about music publishing through another friend, saw an opportunity and started her own publishing company. She also worked in the film industry and the non-profit sector, learning development and fundraising. Learning, learning, learning all the time.

Force majeure can be the catalyst to make the ultimate creative leap to start a new company. The key is to do it fearlessly, with grit and courage. 

Cliff’s position at a corporate was eliminated in an economic downturn. He had started a new division for his company to produce television advertising. Faced with a need, he and Cheryl started their own TV production company: The Pia Agency. “The phone didn’t ring for seven months,” Cliff told us. They didn’t quit. Entrepreneurs embrace that uncertainty and answer it with problem-solving action.

Often, the first problem for entrepreneurs to solve is their own.

The Pia Agency opened in Arizona and the critical mass of clients was located on the East Coast. The new agency found the solution in the adoption of cutting-edge technology for time-shifting and location-shifting (e.g. working with animators and voice talent all over the world) and remote online collaboration (e.g. online real-time video editing with remote studios, which sounds commonplace today but for which the Pia agency had to invent a new digital toolbox at the time).

Growth comes from demonstrating value, and a people-first approach. 

The new system worked, and the Pia Agency began to get work from big name clients like Hewlett Packard and Merrill Lynch, among many more. High quality work generates recommendations – from one brand manager to another in a multi-brand company, and from one company to another when clients change jobs and take their valued relationships with them. Cliff told us that a “people-first” approach – treat clients like people, empathize with them holistically, not just in their business lives – generate not only meaningful relationships but the pass-along recommendations that cause service businesses to grow. Austrian empathy and the role of trust are all pervasive in successful service providers. It’s the human moments that are the most valuable; paydays follow.

Innovation consists simply of new ways to serve clients by responding to their expressed needs. 

Innovation 1: Speed and Responsiveness. TV Production processes were traditionally slow and linear and expensive. But clients preferred speed and responsiveness to rapid market change. The Pia Agency developed speed and responsiveness capabilities (e.g. multiple editors working on the same video at the same time) and a fast-turnaround culture (e.g. hired a key producer from the news industry who was used to high-speed turnaround). This became part of the agency’s unique value to clients.

Innovation 2: Sonic Branding. In the internet age, when we listen on laptop computers, phones and earbuds, audio has taken a second position to video. Consumers put up with generically poor quality. But as voice-shopping evolves, consumers are going to hear brands instead of seeing them. Audio will regain its importance. Cheryl and Cliff understand audio and have developed and invested in capabilities in “sonic branding”: distinctively identifying brands though their audio signature. There is huge growth potential in this new field.

Greater growth comes with adding new external resources. 

Cheryl took an MBA so she could better direct the growth phase of the Pia Agency. She found she was able to apply this resource directly and immediately. And then Cliff and Cheryl merged their agency into a larger global group called Creative Drive, to establish the organization model of the future, an independent collective of content creators, a larger expression of the speed and responsiveness operational model. The Pia Agency has access to a larger client base, a more widely distributed set of relationships, and to expertise in new channels, such as e-commerce. The journey continues.

Cheryl and Cliff recommend their journey map to creative entrepreneurs for consideration. 

If you enjoy music or film or art, and you have a talent, there is every opportunity to do what you love and what you are good at, and the challenge is to learn how to get paid for it. The recommendation they make is to work in an appropriate part of the industry for an established company. For example, you might love music and performing, but you also might realize that music production is more lucrative than performing. The key is to create value, and therefore to understand what others find valuable, and what they will pay for the value brought into their lives. Get a job where you can learn in an area you’re passionate about, and learn what the world will pay for. Start there. Learn more, work with like-minded people. The pathways of entrepreneurship will open up to you.

Creating Freelancers – Check out the Creative Drive Work Market at and add yourself to their talent pool!


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