Creating a Successful Business or Career: Tips From Marc Allen

Until the age of 30, Marc Allen's life was pretty much a mess. He got fired from several jobs; he was always living on the edge financially; he was homeless at times. He woke up on the morning of his 30th birthday and realized he didn't want to live like that anymore.
08/28/2012 02:25pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Recent years have been tough for everyone, including those of us who are self-employed -- or self-unemployed, as the case may be. I recently bought a few books to give myself a refresher in business basics and evaluate options for my own business. In browsing the bookstore shelves, I came across a title that made me chuckle: The Type-Z Guide to Success: A Lazy Person's Manifesto for Wealth and Fulfillment. So I picked it up, opened it, and read the dedication: "This book is dedicated to you, with the hope that you can see how to create the life of your dreams, in an easy and relaxed way, even though you may be lazy, disorganized, inexperienced, overwhelmed, or financially challenged." How could I not love this book?

So I bought it, as well as a couple more books by the same author, Marc Allen -- Visionary Business: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Success, and The Greatest Secret of All: Simple Steps to Abundance, Fulfillment, and a Life Well Lived. I began reading all three books at once, jumping back and forth as the spirit moved me.

Marc's back story is especially interesting. Until the age of 30, his life was pretty much a mess. He got fired from several jobs; he was always living on the edge financially and was terrible at managing money. He was homeless at times -- he lived in a "crash pad" in Berkeley, California, for a while, and in an abandoned house, an empty barn, and an old lumber mill.

He woke up on the morning of his 30th birthday and realized he didn't want to live like that anymore. He decided to take his life in a different direction. So he spent some time that day visualizing what he wanted his life to look like on his 35th birthday. He grabbed a sheet of paper, put the words "IDEAL SCENE" at the top, and wrote down his vision for his life five years in the future. He envisioned himself writing and publishing books and music; he imagined where he wanted to live; he painted a picture in his mind of exactly what his work and his life would be like in five years. And to top it all off, he wanted to do it all "in an easy and relaxed manner, a healthy and positive way"! He acknowledged that he's a lazy guy who has no interest in becoming a workaholic, and he rejected the notion that financial success must come from long hours and hard work. He wanted to build his business and live his life on his terms -- not terms dictated by others.

The first five years were challenging, to say the least. Marc made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of important business lessons in the process. He shares these lessons with readers in all three of his books, and that's one of the things I like most about his writing -- we get to learn from HIS mistakes.

Today Marc Allen is a millionaire -- so clearly he did many things right as well. I liked everything I read in his business books, so I decided to call him for an interview. In addition to asking Marc about his business journey of the past 35 years, I had a few questions about his thoughts on the Great Recession and the slow recovery we've been experiencing.

BJ: What do you most want people to know about how to build a successful business or career?

Marc Allen: It's not difficult at all to understand how to create a successful business or career -- it's simple to understand, but it can be challenging to implement. I have found that the biggest barrier to business success was my own fears and doubts -- and I think that's true for most business owners and entrepreneurs. Eckhart Tolle said it beautifully in The Power of Now: "If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place." That's your real work!

BJ: You're saying that success is an inside job?

Marc: Yes, absolutely. Your business is an outward reflection of your inner thoughts and feelings. So the most important work is internal. When you get your internal act together, the external business follows suit.

BJ: Tell me more about the business basics you talk about in your books.

Marc: It's really quite simple. There are three essential components to any successful business or career: First, you need a product or service. The key to real success here is to do what you love to do! Begin by envisioning what you want your life to look like five years from now: What kind of business or career do you want to have? Where do you want it to be located? Who do you want to be working with you? Who are your ideal customers? What service or product would you love to offer them? In thinking about these questions, be creative, think expansively! Don't worry about what's "practical" or the "how" of all this -- that will come later. At this point, just create your ideal scene in your mind.

Second, you need some way to market and sell your product or service. The key to success here is to have a multi-pronged strategy to reach those you seek to serve. With the Internet, this is easier today than it's ever been. When I started my company, New World Library, 35 years ago, we didn't have the Internet, so marketing and sales was done in more old-fashioned ways -- through bookstores, direct mail, catalogs, and such.

The third thing you need in your business is financial control. This isn't all that complicated, either: you need to make more money than you spend; you need to keep a downward pressure on expenses so you become profitable as soon as possible and can build some cash reserves for times when business is slow.

In my business, my strengths are definitely in the first element -- dreaming up products and services for my customers. I'm creative; I have an active imagination; I'm a writer and musician; and I love nothing more than creating books and music for people that have a positive impact on their lives. But I have very little energy or natural ability for marketing or the financial side of things. In fact, I was so bad with money that we were almost bankrupt after five years in business! As a creative person, I just want to spend, spend, spend -- and that's what we did in those early years. We spent a lot on developing really cool books and music and spoken audio works, and we had no one who could get a handle on our costs so it almost brought us down. Fortunately, I hired a terrific bookkeeper who today is our chief financial officer. She showed me how to reign in expenses so you have a bottom line that's profitable. She knows how to reign me in. She has the authority to stand up to me and say, "No, we can't spend that money." It's essential that you have someone on your team who can do that, otherwise you'll end up being part of the vast majority (some say 80%) of all new businesses that fail.

Any bankruptcy is a failure of management -- and it's almost always a failure of either financial controls or a lack of sales and marketing. Most creative people who start businesses are like me -- really good at envisioning and developing products and services, but fairly lame at marketing and sales, and clueless about financial controls. You need to team up with people who are really good at what you aren't good at, so together you've got all three bases covered.

BJ: I've heard many business experts caution against business partnerships, but I know you started your company, New World Library, with two partners. So tell me what your thoughts are on partnerships.

Marc: Business is all about partnerships -- it's about teaming up with other people to create wonderful goods and services that contribute to other people and to a world that works for all. That said, there needs to be one person in charge of the whole shebang -- one person who has ultimate responsibility for the ongoing success of the company. If you try to share the CEO duties with another person, or a couple of people, the problem you'll encounter sooner or later is that one person will feel like he or she is doing more than the other partner, but not getting compensated for it. Resentments about time, work, and money will almost inevitably crop up between the partners. And things can fall between the cracks too easily if you have more than one leader at the top. One person will assume that his partner was handling a problem, while his partner is assuming the same about him. Misunderstandings, confusion about who's doing what, and communication issues make for confusion and mistakes.

In the early years of the company, there were three owners who were all equal partners, but after a while we realized that it wasn't working very well. We sat down together, and each of us told what we ideally wanted to be doing five years in the future. I enjoyed the publishing business, but my other partners had their own dreams and wanted to do other things. So once we realized that, I became the CEO and they stayed with the company but no longer shared CEO responsibilities -- they focused more on what they really loved to do instead.

So I would say that the real power of partnership is in finding out what people's dreams and passions are, finding out what they're really good at, and then having them do that. Play to people's strengths. Thoreau was right when he said, "There has to be the generating force of love behind every great endeavor." It's true for businesses and it's true for individuals.

And just as I said the real work in starting a business is the internal work, so too is the real work of long-term success. What goes on inside the business will determine what goes on between the business and its customers. Our guiding principles at New World Library are respect, appreciation, and love. And it shows in the books we publish and how our customers think about us.

BJ: I've been noticing a number of people who are so frustrated, angry, and depressed by the tough business climate of the past few years. There almost seems to be a backlash against the kind of visionary, spiritual approach to business that you write about in your books. These people seem broken-hearted, even bitter. What would you say to them?

Marc: I'd tell them that their interior monologue is the problem. Einstein said that a problem cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created the problem. I'd suggest that people read James Allen's classic book, As You Think (the original version is titled As a Man Thinketh). It is our deep, underlying beliefs that determine how we see the world, how we interact with others, and how our lives unfold. Industrialist Henry Ford used to say, "If you think you can, or if you think you can't, you're right." Other great business leaders have said the same thing.

If you believe the Great Recession has killed your dreams and made it impossible for you to achieve success and happiness, then you're right. But if you believe, like Napoleon Hill, that "within every adversity there is an equal or greater opportunity," then you're right about that.

In other words, until we change our interior monologue -- our core beliefs and the conversation in our heads -- we are part of the problem. French diarist Anais Nin summed it up nicely: "We don't see things as they are. We see things as WE are."

Marc Allen (photo courtesy New World Library; used with permission)

For more about Marc Allen, his books, and his company New World Library, visit