Steven Winn has made, lost, and again made millions of dollars as an accountant, infomercial pioneer, no-money-down real estate expert, home-based business seller, pizza restaurateur, and seminar organizer.
As half-owner and operations director for Seminar Crowds, he now works on average less than an hour a day. http://www.seminarcrowds.com/
“Riches from business come and go. What’s important is what we become. Business is phenomenal for evolution and for developing the self-referral process. In business we learn to focus and go deep within to make decisions. In the quiet we ask and get results.”
Part I – The Journey
Steven and I are old friends; we both started businesses in Fairfield in the 1980’s. In 2011 Steven counseled me to let go of my business. Doing so resulted in the marvelous transition I describe in the chapter about me.
Time to move on
As Steven tells it, “I passed my Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam and in 1981 worked for a big eight accounting firm in San Francisco. Not being able to afford local rent, I lived across the bay in Oakland and commuted.
After several years, I had had enough.
The Beckley Group
My friend and future partner, Ed Beckley, had written a book and started a seminar company in Fairfield. Ed offered me a 20% stake in the company and asked me to run it.
We sold courses about buying real estate for no money down. Ed had learned financing techniques of large contractors and big developers. When the big players build a huge hotel, they use other people’s money, not their own. Ed taught individuals to do the same. In the 80s, a time when real estate values kept increasing, there was a real craving for this kind of knowledge.
At first we traveled, advertising no-money-down seminars in local newspapers. At the seminars we sold audiotape courseware. Then we pioneered nationally broadcast infomercials, selling courses through the mail.
Due to the success of the infomercials, we had at one time 600 employees at nine locations in Fairfield, population 10,000.
My mother, who was unhappy that I quit the accounting job, had no clue about the business. On her first visit I took her to one location and announced, ‘this is my mother.’ They all clapped and cheered. My mother asked, ‘who are all these people?’
‘They’re my employees, Mom.’ I did that 9 times.
Business success is more than money; there can be great emotional satisfaction in success.
We started off our first year with one million dollars in sales. Then we did four million. Then we did sixteen million. In 1985 we did forty-one million dollars.
However, in 1986 because of bad decisions and the end of the no-money-down real estate “fad,” the company collapsed.
We had been the town heroes. We brought in many people from the east and west coasts. Because of us, 1700 were in the meditation domes each day. (Maharishi predicted that if 1600 people, 1% of the square root of the US population, meditated in the domes each day, the US would be “invincible.” The Soviet Union collapsed during that time. We only half jokingly liked to claim credit.)
Then we laid everyone off and became the town goats. That’s the world of entrepreneurship.
In 1984 there were few opportunities in Fairfield to make money. Tim Hawthorne applied to be a speaker at our seminars. Tim, a Harvard grad and TV producer, had created several prime time TV successes.
At about the same time President Ronald Reagan de-regulated the airways putting us in the right place at the right time. We could now promote our products with half hour commercials.
We asked Tim to produce the shows. With our input Tim became a major architect of the modern infomercial format, producing fabulous pieces for us.
The Beckley Group was one of two companies that made infomercials big in the US. In the 80s, half of the infomercial talent in the country came from Fairfield.
When we crashed, Tim started Hawthorne Direct, which as of 2015 is still going strong.
Semi-retired in 1986-1994, having made a bunch of money at the Beckley Group, I thought the process was easy.
I invested time and money marketing a beautiful futon bed with Japanese shoji screen that was featured on several magazine covers. It didn’t sell.
I also started a mail order business for union members to buy union goods. Unfortunately, members found price more important than union loyalty.
Déjà vu — Home Business Technologies
Ed Beckley and I teamed up again in 1994 to form Home Business Technologies, a home business opportunity program. We promoted it by infomercials and direct mail. Ed and I shared a similar philosophy — identify a fad, grab it, enjoy the high margin profits, and exit. We knew that eventually someone would come along willing to do the hard, detailed work with a reasonable margin, and have a long-term business. That just wasn’t who we were.
Ed and I repeated our adventures of the 80’s. The first year we did three million dollars in sales. In the second year we did fifty-one million and employed 125.
In 1996 we crashed.
Home based businesses are highly regulated because there are so many scammers. We were straight-forward. However, most people in home based business opportunities such as Amway don’t make money.
The regulators shut us down. We were town goats again.
Bankruptcy and Pizza
I lost a suit with the IRS, settled for half a million dollars, and was broke. I declared personal bankruptcy. Even in bankruptcy, the IRS has three years to collect after the final assessment. If you start anything up, they take it from you to pay off your debt.
The classic is to go to McDonald’s and flip burgers. I didn’t have anything else going on, so I tossed pizza.
It was great pizza, and I made two grand a month with all the pizza I could eat.
I put my heart into it, made terrific pizza, created strong marketing, did a lot of things. My partner, Mark Delott, said there wasn’t enough money in the pizzeria, and you can take the profits. Very kind of you, Mark.
Mark started looking around for something else to do. His cousin was promoting seminars for financial planners. He thought it was going to become a fad, and fads are my business strategy. We saw the opportunity.
Mark offered me a job. I told him, I don’t want to work for anybody, but would help him set it up. I required a 50% partnership to be permanent. He eventually agreed. Mark had seen how I completely threw myself at the pizzeria.
Whatever you do, do it impeccably, and offers will come.
Most marketing companies in our industry do mailings with full-color, brilliant, fancy, expensive pieces. These pieces promote the financial planner and his seminar.
Instead of a brochure, we mailed a four by six, black ink on yellow stock postcard. The card like the brochure advertised a free meal and fabulous information from the planner about the financial future.
With post cards we tested a free lunch at Denny’s. Nobody showed up. Then we tried Olive Garden. Good response. Then we tried Ruth’s Chris, a big fancy steakhouse. A crowd came.
The quality of the restaurant is what made the offer compelling, not the look of the invitation. We optimized the system and rather than sending one dollar brochures, we mailed customized twenty-nine cent post cards.
As with infomercials in the 1980’s, we were in the right place at the right time. This time it was the technical revolution of digital printing. We now could create customized print mail pieces quickly and inexpensively.
As of 2015, Seminar Crowds continues to pull in millions of dollars of yearly sales.”
Part II – Business Wisdom
Winn on Business
Owning a job verses owning a business
“As an entrepreneur, you either own a business, or you own a job. If your business requires always being there, that’s a job.
Most entrepreneurs work sixty to eighty hours a week, doing the various tasks of their business. They do them because they’re better and faster than anybody they can hire, and there’s not enough time to train others. When they do finally hire, often these frazzled entrepreneurs can’t keep people. The dream turns into a nightmare.
A variant of that experience showed up for me with the two hyper-growth multimillion dollar businesses in the 80’s and 90’s.
I directed operations making all the decisions so that everything would get done. I thought quickly, knew answers, and would say, do this, do that. Employees normally followed through.
I would have five chairs outside my door. People would sit in line waiting to ask me questions.
Did I feel important? Yes. Was it emotionally satisfying? Yes. Was it a smart way to run a business? No. I was micro-managing everything.
In my current business, I got smarter. The first year, I immersed myself, working many 14-16 hour days. As the digital printing revolution evolved, how could I train someone, when I didn’t know the answers myself?
In the second year, as with the other businesses, I was still micro-managing. However, this time, I didn’t want the glory; I didn’t need to feel I was the most important person in the business.
We had hired good people. One day I told them, I’m not coming in the mornings anymore. They panicked. They were used to asking me what to do, and I’d tell them. If it didn’t go right, I was the one to blame.
I told them, you guys are smart, you know the business, as well as I do. You are going to do this. If you have questions, give me a call.
They called me a lot the first week, called some the second week, and then they stopped calling. Suddenly, I had a life.
These guys ended up doing a better job and putting in better systems than I could have done micro-managing.
Now the business pretty much runs itself. I have the freedom to travel and study. Recently, I received a master’s degree in Vedic Science from Maharishi University of Management. I would go to school and at three o clock head over to the business for an hour to check on things and answer questions.
Complement your skills
If you don’t have all the skills you need, find a partner or hire someone who does. Understand your strengths and your weaknesses.
In my case I am able to work with all sorts of personalities, allowing me to find wildly talented partners. I do so even though they may have huge weaknesses that I am able to balance out. These partners in turn balance out my weaknesses.
My partner for the two fast growth companies was a phenomenal marketer, aggressive, and pushed things to the limit. My current Seminar Crowds partner, Mark Delott, is the best I’ve had. He’s a terrific marketer with crazy right-brain ideas, nine tenths of which are not practical. One of ten is a gem, and we have made a fortune on his outside-the-box ideas. He is not strong with operations, and knows it, and that’s my core strength.
Ability to execute
There are many people with great business ideas, but nothing happens because there is no execution. Once you have a reputation of executing and doing things well, people bring you great ideas because they don’t want to do it themselves.
Hiring and Firing
I hire people based on emotional tone, how I feel about them. If I feel a certain way, so do others.
What happens when I make a mistake? I let them go.
Also, I tend to hire people in their 20’s, who do not have preconceived notions about what’s possible and how to do things.
If people aren’t performing, they aren’t happy. Firing people is always an emotional thing. Everybody’s afraid of change. Yet, I’ve noticed that fired employees almost always find more suitable positions.
One thing to remember, it’s business, not personal. The people who work for us are my friends, and we care a lot. Yet, I separate business and friendship. You must respect the fundamental law of nature of business — make money or go out of business.
If we get to a point that my partner and I have to put money in to pay people, we will close the business. That’s why we’re careful every step of the way, watching sales and being ruthless about cutting expenses even if it means letting people go.
You want to do business with people you like and trust. If you don’t trust a person, don’t expect a contract to control their behavior. In today’s world, the cost of enforcement is much more than the value of the contract.
Yet, the importance of the contract is that both parties are clear about the agreement. Most people honor what they put in writing.
Often something isn’t addressed in the contract. I would never expect a contract to force someone to do what’s not in their long term interest. When things come up, the parties need to discuss and change the contract or go their separate ways. If you create a contract that is not good for the other party, it’s not going to work for long.
At the same time it is important to honor your side of the contract, renegotiating if absolutely necessary. People will sense your trustworthiness and want to dobusiness with you.
Swim with government
It’s wise if you can catch a government trend like Obama-care. It’s like swimming with the current versus against it.
On the other hand, you do not want to fight the government. My partner, Ed Beckley, called Iowa Attorney General, Tom Miller, a liar in the Des Moines Register. Within 30 days, the government investigated and took the company down.
We did nothing illegal or fraudulent, but the government has more power than any individual.
Talk to people who are your friends. People want to help. However, your posture should never be, ‘please, oh please help me, I hope this is going to work.’
Have you ever picked up a desperate hitchhiker? Were you ever in high school anxious for a date? Did you get a date? Yet, if you’re cool and don’t care, others will find you more attractive and less threatening.
Your posture when raising money is exactly the same. ‘I’ve got this phenomenal thing here, and a few people are going to make a lot of money. I want to know if you’re interested or not.’
You want to draw investment in; you never want to chase it. You want to attract money, investors, partners, clients. You never want to put it out that you’re desperate. That’s when the sharks start gathering.
Opening books to potential buyers
Once, one of our competitors expressed interest in buying us. It turned out they were trying to learn about our business. Now after that experience, if a competitor expresses interest in our business, I request reciprocal information from them. You want my sales figures, I want yours. If they are just snooping, we find out quickly.”
Part II – Success from the Inside Out
Business is phenomenal for evolution
“Business riches come and go. What’s important is what we become.
Business is phenomenal for evolution and for developing the self-referral process. In business we learn to focus and go deep within to make decisions. In the quiet we ask and get results. Daily meditation cultures that silence.
Business appears to take place during day-to-day operations. Yet, business really happens in the quiet moments when we stamp our intentions on the infinite. When we go within, our infinite potentiality shows up again and again.
The ability to fulfill our desires depends on how well we establish the habit of referring back to the Self. We can create again and again from unbounded awareness, the field of all possibilities. Once we master this self-referral process the world is ours.
Know why you want to create a business
What are my strengths? What kind of business do I want to have? What am I willing to do?
Personally, I just want a bunch of money, and then have plenty of time off to meditate and engage in other spiritual pursuits.
Other entrepreneurs may desire stability, self-expression, or being a difference-maker in the world. Each case requires a different strategy.
Decision versus Wanting
When we’re chasing something, that’s our emotions, our ego. Instead, we can decide to have it, and allow it to come. We are able to let go of the desire because we already know it’s ours.
There are two kinds of wanting. “I want a glass of water.” In the U.S. anybody can get a glass of water in an hour.
“I want a million dollars by the end of the week.” What comes up? Resistance.It’s impossible. How?
Wanting water is a decision. I want it, and I will have it. Wanting a million dollars for most of us is a desire. I lack it.
If we decide to raise a million dollars for our business by the end of the week, we can decide, “I’m going to get a million dollars this week.” We’re clear; we decide; we know; it’s done. Nature responds to all-in decisions. If we know we’re going to get it, and we allow it to come, channels open up.
Self-referral verses ego-referral
Most of us act based on how our families and society programmed us. If my grades were bad, or I came from a poor family, who am I to make a fortune in business? If we only refer to our programming, our fate is all but determined. Similarly, if we make decisions based on our emotions (that is, based on our ego, our stress, our karma) our karma dictates the results.
Once we start making decisions from the Self within, freedom increases and karma’s impact is limited. If we refer to that unbounded quiet spot inside us, we take control of our lives.
In the 1980’s I made a fortune that in today’s dollars would be five million dollars. It took me 5 years to go through it paying taxes, donating, and investing in commodities and startups. I was 33 years old, and just couldn’t keep it.
Yet, once you create something, it’s internalized. I’d seen it done; I believed in it happening again; I knew I could do it again.
I could have dwelled on the loss of so much money and repeated failures. What you put your attention on grows. If I kept referring to the loss, it would color and control my life. Looking at it and transcending it, releases it.
Fear and greed
Make decisions from calm rather than from fear. Get quiet; go inside and say, what’s the next step? Emotions are not trustworthy or reliable friends; that quiet voice is. A lot of being in business is mastering feelings.
If we’re using greed as the motivator rather than a vision of what’s possible, we never get enough.
If we are functioning from greed, greedy people join us. Greedy people take advantage of us and don’t stay.
If we catch ourselves being fearful or greedy, we don’t need to fight the fear or greed. We go to a quiet place within ourselves and release the emotions. As long as we keep going back to quiet, the world is ours.
Self-referral and doing things you don’t like
There are many things in business that we don’t like that make us feel uncomfortable or scared. Maybe it’s the possibility of failing and bankruptcy; maybe it’s having to fire someone; maybe it’s selling and asking for payment.
If we let those feelings run our career, we’re referring back to our emotions and stress. When we’re captured by emotion and negative thinking, what’s guiding our decisions? If we think small, we are letting fear govern.
Instead, think big. All things are possible when we engage in Self-referral and tap into the unbounded awareness within.”
1. Steven’s story had a lot to do with his relationship with success and failure. How do you deal with success and failure? What can you learn from Steven’s up and down journey?
2. Steven states that his goal in business is to make money which buys him time and material freedom. His main strategy is to look for “fads” and make money quickly and easily. Do you have a judgment about that approach? Why do you want to go into business, and what is your strategy for success?
3. Steven has a simple, direct approach to hiring and firing. Do you agree with his thinking? How would you approach hiring and firing?
4. According to Steven, developing self-referral is key to business success. Developing self-referral means going within for answers. Can you relate? Can you think of examples of self-referral in your life?