Andrew Griffiths is an entrepreneur and author of ten books. His latest is The ME Myth – a book about how to combat the self-obsession of the modern world. It has been published by Simon & Schuster.
He is also the author of the ‘101 Ways’ business building series of books, published by Allen & Unwin, including 101 Ways to Market Your Business, 101 Secrets to Building a Winning Business and, most importantly, 101 Ways to Have a Business and a Life. There are eight books in total in the series and they’ve all been incredibly successful both in Australia and overseas.
Andrew has a real passion for small business and has worked in a huge variety of industries. He started with a paper route at the age of seven and has since sold encyclopedias, owned his own SCUBA school and retail shop and worked as a commercial driver. He is a highly sought after speaker for small businesses and corporates.
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* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Andrew thanks for joining us today.
You’ve always worked in small business in some way. What is it about small business that makes you want to keep doing it and to write so much about it?
I think that small business is one of those things that just kind of gets under your skin in some way. There are so many people that are in small business and it becomes such a passionate thing for them. Often they have fallen into it, it’s been their dream since they were a kid.
I think that it is just something for me that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started my first business when I was about seven when I was selling newspapers. That’s right, a newspaper route and that was the beginning of the entrepreneurial streak for me. I realize that the harder that I worked and the more creative I was the more money I could make in terms of getting better tips. I think that is how it kind of started. I’ve never seemed to be able to cure myself of the aliment since.
Many people know that your name is synonymous with those fantastic series of books, 101 Ways, where you write about different aspects of small business. But can you just give listeners who aren’t so familiar with your background just sort of like some potted highlights of your background before you got to this stage?
Yeah, sure. Thank you for your nice words about the series. It’s something that I am really proud of. I think for me I’ve never been a writer. I didn’t set out to be a writer. I’m not one of those people I guess who had that passion in their life or dreamed about being a writer. That’s come a little bit later on in life for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I started my life entrepreneurially at least in the streets of Perth selling newspapers and things like that and it kind of went on. Part of that was really brought about by my early childhood. I grew up as an orphan in WA so I had a fairly unusual upbringing and that meant that I lived in and out of state care and all types of different experiences as a kid. I ended up over in Sydney as well in the same kind of environment.
But I actually bought my first real business when I was about 18 years of age. And back in the days when you could actually do that, Valerie, walk into a bank and say, “I’m 18 and I’ve got no money. Can someone lend me a pile of cash and I’ll go and buy a business?” And they used to give you a check and send you on your way.
So I bought a business and it was a dive shop in Sydney of all things and I had no idea how to run a business. I knew how to dive. At that stage I had done some courses and that was a bit of a passion for me. But I made every mistake known to mankind time and time again. It really did get quite ridiculous. I would sleep in the dive shop because I didn’t have enough money to put petrol in the car to drive home. It was a calamity waiting to happen.
Eventually though through a set of circumstances it turned around and then I learnt from it and went on to do other businesses as a result of that each time learning from my mistakes and getting a little bit smarter about what I was doing. I ended up running and starting and being successful in advertising, in marketing companies, in travel companies, in businesses really rather than companies. Little bit by little bit I started to realize that there were so many things I had learnt along the way.
That’s actually something how my first book 101 Ways to Market Your Business really started. I was running my marketing firm and I had people coming in to see me quite regularly who were running small businesses who had the same kind of problems. Time and time again I was having the same meetings and it always felt like déjà vu. What I would do was I would kind of talk to them and give them the same bits of advice so I started to write some fact sheets. A lot of these people didn’t have a lot of money and they couldn’t really afford a consultant so I would give the fact sheets or they would ring me and say, “I’ve got this problem. I need to know how to make a brochure or I need more customers today or I’ve got a legal issue. What do I do?”
All of a sudden I found that I had about 50 of these fact sheets that I was just sending out to people just as a good thing to do. I had the idea that maybe I’ve got enough ideas here for half a book if I wrote another 50 ideas I could maybe make a book. That’s how it really evolved. I put the manuscript together and ended up sending it to a publisher or two and the next thing that I know I had a book contract.
Fantastic. Did you then think that you would write more books after that and then start speaking about it?
No, not in a million years, Valerie. I didn’t think anyone would even publish it. Allen & Unwin published the first one. I had an easy publishing route when you hear about so many people having challenges and difficulties to get published. I sent it to two publishers, I believe, and I got a phone call from Allen & Unwin, a lady there called Ann Crabb.
I thought that it was the local radio station giving me a raz because of friends of mine that knew that I had sent the manuscript off. So didn’t believe. I actually hung up on her the first time because her voice sounded so familiar to one of the local radio people that I knew. Anyway she rang back and pleaded with my receptionist at the time to take my call seriously.
It was an interesting kind of a beginning, I think. No, I had no idea. I didn’t know how to write a book. I didn’t really know. I just had this vision that I would just go and publish what I’d given them. Of course, as anyone who is a writer knows or who has been published, that is so far from the truth.
My initial manuscript that I had sent them was terrible but they actually liked the idea of what I had done. My writing skills were terrible. The layout was terrible. The composition, the whole thing was terrible. I had adjective influenza so I had to get rid of all of that stuff.
But they really loved the idea and so we worked on it and it came out. It was only after the first one became so successful and became a bestseller in Australia that they said, “Have you got any other ideas?”
And I said, “I’ve got heaps, heaps of ideas. There are lots of issues for small businesses that need to be addressed. Marketing is just one of the most common ones.” And so next we wrote a book about customer service, 101 Ways to Really Satisfy Your Customers.
Little bit by little bit we just kept adding to the series and they let me pick the topics that I thought were the most relevant for small business and the most pressing or the most timely or whatever it may be. That’s how the series really evolved.
Eight of your books have been about business or small business. So what made you then think I’m going to write The Me Myth which is your latest book. Tell us about The Me Myth.
That’s an interesting part of the journey too for me. I guess after writing eight 101 Ways that’s a simple kind of a book written in a way to help people. You open it up at any page and the information is really simple and really practical. It’s around a market that I know very, very well, the small business owners.
I also realized that there is so much about our personal and emotional state of being that ties into our success in business and our success and our joy and love of life and all of those types of things. Something that I do a lot of is presenting at conferences, and bits and pieces like that. And I always tell people more about my background, my own triumphs and my own tragedies over the years.
It’s interesting because I guess when you have lived that life you don’t necessarily think that there is anything unusual or extraordinary about it. I never did. I didn’t tell anyone about my background until about four or five years ago really, Valerie. It’s just that it kind of came up. I was asked to present to business women’s network and I said, “Okay, what would you like me to talk about, marketing or business growth?”
They said, “Oh, no, no. Can you tell us your story?”
I said, “Well, okay. It will be a short presentation. It will be five minutes.”
And they said, “Oh, no, no, no. We want to know. We know that you’ve got a bit of an unusual background so tell us everything.”
I thought about it long and hard and that’s what I did. I got up on stage to these 200 to 250 odd people, many of whom I know, and I told them my whole story from being abandoned as a six-month old baby to growing up with this 75-year old mad woman and everything that followed through that.
I very openly talked it through and at the end of this presentation there were people hysterically in tears and laughs and hugs. It was an incredibly emotional kind of experience all around. It made me realize that the power that we have to inspire other people with our own words and our own experiences.
Also this incredible power that comes from someone sharing their own inspirational story about overcoming adversity. Most people who do overcome adversity I’ve come to realize don’t often understand how valuable that actually is. I started presenting more and more about my own background and taught it into business and how I’ve used my background to overcome challenges in business and things like that.
Again, it has really worked very well for me and I’ve really connected incredibly with people and had wonderful feedback from so many people, thousands and thousands of people that read my books or come to events. And The Me Myth really came about as a result of that because I have so many people that come up to me and say that you had such a challenging life right through but you are not bitter and twisted. You’re so positive. You’re so enthusiastic. You’re so optimistic. You are all of these incredible things. How on earth can that be?
I’ve often asked myself that same question because my sister who had a similar childhood to myself and had a tough life, she died very young. She died at the age of 35 from, I call it a broken heart but it was a heart attack which is really unheard of for people to die so young. Particularly a lady I believe.
We had the same upbringings but we dealt with it in a different way and it just made me look at myself and go, “Okay, how have I learnt to cope?” and I realized that it was this ability to say well don’t make it all about me. It’s not all about me. Just learn to focus outwards instead of focusing inwards and your life changes perspective.
I looked around at other people that I admired in the world who were incredibly successful. And what I mean about that is that it isn’t for me it isn’t about money. It’s about the people who live rich and rewarding lives and they are great contributors to the world and to society. They share this wonderful characteristic that life was not just about them but they gave selflessly of themselves. They were incredible contributors in every way.
I realized that it was a powerful thing to be able to focus outwards instead of making everything all about us as individuals and focusing inwards. That’s why I call it The Me Myth, Valerie, is because I think that we are so conditioned these days inwards. We are so bombarded with media telling us what to think and how to think. We are over analysing ourselves in so many different ways that it becomes overwhelming after a while.
If we really want to grow as individuals I believe that we have got to change our perspective. That’s what I’ve done in my life and it’s had really profound effects.
Was it difficult to write because it is quite a different approach to the short, sharp 101 Ways to writing something that is a lot deeper and a lot more personal? How was it during the writing process?
It was interesting. And again thank you for your insight into seeing the difference between the two styles of books. It is a very personal kind of story and I really don’t hold back in terms of sharing my experiences. But what was challenging for me, I guess, was not the emotional aspect of writing about some difficult times in my life because I’ve kind of come to terms with so much of that. I do try and look at it in a fun kind of a way, in a strange way.
But it was interesting what came back into my memory. I could remember so much. We think about things that happened 30 or 40 years ago and they are kind of a memory, or for me at least, it’s a blurry memory. But when I actually sat down to focus on them and to write about it I was amazed at how vivid the memories became.
One incredible example for me which was really quite bizarre I got abducted as a child. My sister and I got abducted by a lady that had lost a plot few streets away and couldn’t have children and just had an emotional meltdown. She was dragging us up the road. She came and grabbed my sister and was dragging my sister out of the house and up the road and I went to try and free my sister. I was only a tiny tot, five years old or something like that and I was pinching this lady on the leg or something trying to free my sister from her.
But what was amazing was as I was writing this I could remember what colour clothes my sister was wearing, what I was wearing, what this lady was wearing, the colour of the frangipani on the tree down the stairs as we walked down, the colour of the path. It was almost like photographic recall. It really did amaze me how vivid that was. That whole experience right through to the police getting involved in a siege that underwent and followed this whole craziness that came as a result of. The vivid details that came out of it.
I think that so many of the things that I wrote about that really did come out for me a lot, the vividness of my recall which I had never really experienced up until I spent hours and hours writing just thinking about it. It was also a lot of time spent on many other parts of the book just thinking and sitting with my hands on my belly and kind of just putting a little bit of thought into how my sentence that I want to say and how I want to try and get across and that type of stuff.
Because The Me Myth actually started out as two books, Valerie. At Simon & Schuster we spoke of doing my autobiography and then a self-help book. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about doing an autobiography because I’m only 43 and I don’t think that I have done enough.
From the sounds of it it looks like you have been through enough for an autobiography.
I don’t know what the qualifications are for that really but Simon & Schuster said to me how about we combine the two and make this an autobiographical self-discovery kind of book. I said yeah, that I like that because again I don’t want it to feel like it is just an ego kind of book of me just talking about my own background without a purpose. I want this to have a purpose. I want it to help people and I really want people to be able to use the things that I talk about and that’s how it all came about. So that’s a long answer to your question but it was a very interesting journey and I felt very, very good when I typed the last couple of words and put, yeah, I’m really happy.
What was the most challenging part of that journey?
Deciding what to put in and what not to put in about other people, that was hard. My sister in particular, she had a very challenging life in terms of she had been raped. She had been sexually abused in a household that we were living in and things like that. That’s really hard to decide what extent you put that stuff in. as I said she has passed away now and do I want to bring that up or do I just let it lie. I believe that it’s important to talk about those types of things. So that was probably the hardest part for me and really deciding again whether you want name the people that have had a negative and a positive influence on you in your life. Some of those kinds of moral equations are worth thinking about and worth pondering.
With my business books, as you rightly pointed out Valerie, that stuff just really came out of my head and I could sit down and I don’t have to research 101 Ways. It’s just there from my own experience it just pours out of me. I could sit down and on my laptop I can write those books really fast and really everyone is quite amazed at how quickly and how easily it comes out. The Me Myth was much more pondering and much more consideration and just a little bit of wariness I guess on just how it may affect other people that have been in my life and deciding whether or not that is a good thing or not.
I imagine that it took much, much, much longer than the 101 Books to write?
It did actually surprisingly though. I’m an incredibly fast typist. That’s my claim to fame. I taught myself how to type because I realized a few years ago that if this writing thing seems to be something that is going to happen for me so I better learn how to type. So I taught myself how to type by working on my computer in the dark and my fingers had to figure out where the keyboards were. I don’t think it has done much for my eyesight but it has taught me to be an incredibly fast typist which is a fallback career for me if everything else fails.
This one did take longer and more time spent just sitting and thinking and discussing. I had a bit of a brains trust of people around me, my friends, some very close friends of my partner, Deb, to read it and look at it with a bit of a fresh eyes and just an open mind. My publisher and my editor, she was fantastic as well in terms of being very respectful about what I was writing and also, I guess, very gentle on her advice about “This is a little bit too confronting here. Are you sure that you want to put this in?” Those types of thing were able to be covered in a range of ways.
It was a great experience for me and I love it. I love the book. Just this morning I was looking through it and again it’s something that I feel incredibly proud of and a lot of hard work from a lot of areas. I guess it is a nice summation of my life so far.
And then there will be Part 2 before long.
I’ll probably do The Me Myth thing in different areas of life, like The Me Myth in relationships, Me Myth in business. I’m a serious kind of a guy. That seems to be obvious. I think that is the way that my brain works, doesn’t it. I’m a perpetual series guy.
Like a serial entrepreneur as well. On that note, being a serial entrepreneur, how many small businesses would you have run over the course of your life so far?
I have run and owned probably about 15. I guess I would say. Working as a marketing consultant for hundreds if not thousands more where I have offered them advice and helped people and played a big part in their role. One of problems that I have in life is when I have a client I take on everything for their business. And at one stage there I had about 40-odd clients and there is always someone in trouble when you’ve got that many clients.
So I would lie in bed at night worrying about this business. How are they going to be okay and are they going to get through? Okay what can I do? Then you get them through and then the next one would be in trouble and little bit by little bit it was slowly killing me so I had to learn to just distance myself a little bit from them.
I just love small business owners and I love the passion that people have for turning their dream into a reality. I feel that it is an incredible honour to be able to help them achieve that and often they just need a bit of steering in the right direction. They just need someone to come in with a fresh pair of eyes and say, “Hey, you’ve got all the wonderful components of your business here. You just have to change this a little bit or stop working on your business and just work on yourself a bit more. You are worn out. You are exhausted. Go and have a holiday. Come back.”
I tell more and more of my clients and more small business owners to go and have a holiday as a business development tool than anything else. There is never a good time. There is never enough money. There is always a thousand reasons not to go, so go anyway. And come back with refreshed, revitalized, recharged. That will do more for your business than any amount of advertising, marketing or anything else.
So with small businesses are you currently mainly writing and speaking or do you still run some businesses?
I still run my own marketing firm. I’ve got a few businesses really that I do different things for. But more so now, my writing is really becoming such a big part of my life. I realize that I love it. I do love it. There is something so wonderful about writing and the power of the written word.
I’m a late bloomer in kind of appreciating and realizing that but I get it now. I realize that it’s a great medium for me to communicate and share some of my own ideas and experiences. My writing, I have a full schedule. I have ongoing contracts with Allen & Unwin, with Simon & Schuster and some other publishers that are talking to me now about other things as well. I’m looking at expanding in America so I’ve got some potential contracts over there.
With my keynote speaking, as well, which seems to take me all over the place and present on a range of things. I’ve less and less time for consulting and working with small businesses but I always have a few that I’m working with at least because I think that it really keeps me in touch and it keeps me a little bit aware of what’s happening.
But I do talk to so many business owners at conferences and things. I love nothing better than having a cup of coffee with someone in the corner and “Tell me what’s going on in your business? What’s happening? What’s the challenges? What’s working and what’s not?”
I meet these incredible people that just blow me away with the things that they are doing around the world and I just shake my head in admiration of them. We are living in this age of incredible ingenuity and entrepreneurialism that is going to spike a whole new world of new books and ideas that are truly incredible. The ones that are under 20 are the most incredible of the lot.
Really, why do you think that is?
I think that they get technology and right or wrong, we are in a technological age. They don’t see limitations. They don’t look at technology as a problem. It’s just a part of life that is easy. They understand it. They get it. They know how to communicate to target markets. They know how to communicate for nothing which is pretty amazing. They know what to say. They have created their own language. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
As entrepreneurs they are truly unbelievable. What they have to learn though is that some of the basics of business are still the same no matter how you are communicating, things like customer service, customer values, the importance of differentiation, all of those things. They will get that though. They will get that but they certainly inspire me and motivate me. It’s hard to keep up with them.
Can you tell us some of the more interesting or unusual small businesses that you have set up or fun ones?
The fun ones more for me would probably be some of the clients that I have had like as a marketing consultant or publishing company. I helped a guy that I guess you would call him a tarantula farmer. He went out into the wilds of North Queensland and he collects tarantulas. He collects these tarantulas and milks them and they send the venom over to Princeton University in the States to look for all types of wonderful chemical compounds that could be used for health issues.
He was having a bit of a problem. That’s all great and sounds wonderful but he gets paid on a royalty basis in about 50 years so right now he has got to feed himself. So we set up a mail order tarantula business. It was a fantastic thing. But the only problem was that every time I had to meet with this guy he would insist on bringing in some tarantulas. I had to go sit in our boardroom type of thing and watch these tarantulas crawl all over the table going, “Oh, this is just so wrong for so many reasons.”
I helped general stores in the middle of remote areas. There was a funny old lady out at a place called Croydon, a remote part of Queensland. The government sent me out there to help her. She was sitting on her front veranda complaining that no one ever stopped at her general store. Everyone just kept driving past. So we just spent a couple of hours brainstorming. That was fantastic.
One old part of this building that had closed down because it was just filled with junk and crap and looked terrible. It was a real nondescript general store so we spent a bit of time and the next thing we had a sign up going,” The Oldest General Store in Queensland” because she thought it might be. We had a free museum which was the old junk room. In a matter of weeks there were trucks and busloads of tourists stopping. It ended up in the Lonely Planet and Lets Go guides and on TV programs around the world as the oldest general store in Queensland with a free museum. So I will probably go to hell for that but we had a lot of fun.
Every kind of business that you can imagine. I don’t know. It’s almost hard to recall them all. I travel a lot doing things and working with a lot of indigenous groups around Australia and indigenous businesses, a lot of online type of businesses. A client of mine, she took Botox out to Mount Isa which is an amazing kind of involvement. She packed her bag and she’s a nurse and went out there to the streets of Mount Isa and promoted Botox. She built this great business around doing Botox injections in Mount Isa.
That’s just bizarre.
I know. It never ceases to amaze me some of the things that people come up with. And yes, they blow you away. It’s just wonderful really, isn’t it?
So when you are writing, sitting down and actually writing a book do you have some kind of routine or do you sit aside time? Or do you have to fit it in with all of this speaking and consulting and all of that? What happens?
It’s changed a bit over the years for me. It used to be that writing was just a hobby so I would do it after-hours. I used to be a late-night writer. I would write all night on normally Friday and Saturday nights or whenever I would have the chance. I just got into a bit of a mode. Now days I can’t do that. I don’t have the same energy I think that I had before so I do look at it where if I’m working on a book I will block out two or three weeks at a time and kind of spend that time writing. Or I will go away quite often which seems funny when you live in Cairns. People say, “Why do you want to go away for?” I’m busy here. I get caught up in things here more than I do anywhere else.
So now I think that I do honour the project a little bit more, Valerie. And I say that I’ve got to work on this book to make it right. That’s it. I can’t really do anything else at the moment except just focus on what I’m writing on. My friends all know, my family know that when I’m in writing mode everyone just leaves me alone and I crank up the stereo and I lock myself away and I go into a bit of a crazy zone where I write and sleep. I forget what the clock says and just kind of go for it.
I really enjoy that as well. I really like that little bit of cut-off from the rest of the world and just really immerse myself in the project. There is something really quite pleasant about doing that that just makes you go. It’s hard to come out of it at times because you get into this bit of an area. When you do walk outside again after even just a few days of doing that I’ve always found it’s like coming off a spaceship. You are a bit unkempt and unshaven and a bit crazy looking and you have forgotten how to talk and all that kind of stuff. But you come back into the real world and it doesn’t take long to remember what you have got to do when you get back here.
Finally because I come across many small business owners who think that they have a book in them and who want to also publish a book about their area of expertise or whatever. What is your advice to those people because it’s not that easy just to go land a book contract, is it?
It’s not that easy to go and write a book contract. But I do encourage people to do it or to try. I think that is the real key. Like me, I have no qualifications, I went to high school. I went to uni for a couple of months. It’s not like I’m a scholarly kind of person from that point of view.
The first and foremost thing is that you don’t have to be a great writer to be a good business book writer. That’s my own personal belief. I think that you can learn those skills. You work with an editor and I think that is a big part of it. I think that the editor’s name should go on the front cover of most of my books and mine should be on the back somewhere in the small print.
I think that the big mistake that many people make is they believe that they have got to write the book and then take it to a publisher. And most publishers, in my experience from in non-fiction business, they don’t want to see a whole book. They want to see a concept, maybe one chapter. What they want to see is an index page, what the idea is for the book and a bit of the rational about how it comes out, how the person will write it and those types of things.
Because what they want to do is they want to be able to play a role in shaping the book in terms of their market needs. I know that with my publishers that is certainly what they say themselves. When it comes to non-fiction it is very frustrating for them to get a completed manuscript a lot of the time. Because if it has potential but it is kind of not right it’s a lot harder to change a full manuscript than it is to shape a manuscript from the beginning.
So I would suggest that is a really important point and there are some specialist non-fiction business-writing agents now that are very keen to help people to get business books published. There is a company called three60agency.com which are my agents and they are always looking for new people with ideas that want to get business books published. So getting a literary agent in Australia is difficult, getting a non-fiction business agent is probably a little easier and it’s quite a new area. So that’s one option, it’s 3 spelt out three60agency.com, do a google search and you’ll find it. But they’ll help point you in the right direction.
And give it a go, I think that’s the last thing I would say, I think there are a lot of people who have wonderful ideas, as I showed with the 101 series, it’s a pretty simple idea – 101 ways to market your business. When you think about it the 101 books are simple ideas but today they’re sold around the world, translated into a heap of different languages. All the rest of it, you don’t have to come up with the crazy title, you know, the “Build a Business in a walnut shell” type of thing or that bizarre type of title that people think that we’re trying to create. Mine are meat and potatoes books but they’ll be around for the next 20 years and they’ll sell a lot of copies over that period of time because they are staples on the bookshelf of hundreds of thousands of business owners. So that’s a little bit of my perspective on positioning it and I think something else that a lot of publishers are looking for is they don’t really want one-hit wonders, they want people that can create more than one book. Because once you start to develop a bit of a following, as in any kind of book of course, you’ve got this ready made audience. I mean my 101 book series pretty much sell out as soon as they’re published because there’s this loyal following of business owners across the country that already have them and already like them and know I’ve got to buy the next one to keep the series together.
But give it a go, that’s the best advice I can have.
Not only good writing advice, good business advice.
Well thank you very much for your time today Andrew, I’m sure we could talk for hours.
Thanks Valerie I’ve really enjoyed chatting
We might have to do a series of these
I like your thinking, I like your style
Well I wonder where I learnt that from.
Alright, well thank you very much for your time, really appreciate it.
My pleasure, really nice talking to you.