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The Published Author Podcast

AUTHOR OF 15 BOOKS PROVES SUCCESS COMES FROM GROWTH-MINDSET, ADAPTABILITY, CURIOSITY

Entrepreneur and author Peter Cohan uses the word “lucky” often in this interview with Published Author host Josh Steimle.

But looking at what he describes as his “very confused career”, a sense of curiosity and willingness to try new things are two qualities that stand out.

Peter could have easily embarked on his original quest to be a poet and given up, instead perhaps taking a job in a factory or maybe even a mid-level white-collar role.

But the author of 15 books possesses an entrepreneurial spirit far beyond average. His ability to see emerging trends and adaptability, along with his skill at maximizing opportunities, have led Peter to phenomenal success.

SEEING PATTERNS, CONNECTING IDEAS AN IMPORTANT PART OF NONFICTION BOOKS

Peter is a big picture thinker. His most recent book, Goliath Strikes Back: How Traditional Retailers Are Winning Back Customers from Ecommerce Startups, exemplifies this. 

It explores the mindset of leaders of successful and growing companies. Says Peter: “One of the things that makes the biggest difference between companies and regions that have a lot of success in startups is the number of people who are what I call marathoners. 

“They are people who can take an idea, turn it into a startup, develop a product that people want to buy, and then get a lot of people to buy that product.”

A WINNING ENTREPRENEURIAL MINDSET

Marathoners then take that company public, and keep running and growing rapidly as a public company. 

He gives the example of Jim McNerney, who took over at Boeing when it had a lot of problems. Jim turned it around. Another example is Best Buy. Its CEO left after a $1.2 billion loss, and in came McKinsey consultant Hubert Joly to rebuild. Both had what Peter calls a fast follower mindset, similar to the marathoner mindset. 

The third mindset Peter has identified is the head-in-the-sand mindset. “With this, you run the company looking in the rearview mirror. You run it with the mindset of somebody who may have been successful doing something 20 years ago, and they think the world is still that way, or they want the world to be that way, because that's what they're comfortable with. 

“So they keep making decisions as if the world is still the way it was 20 years ago, but it's not. And then they run the company into the ground. Essentially, that's what Goliath Strikes Back is about. 

YOU REALLY DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOOD AT UNTIL YOU TRY 

His view is that entrepreneurs have to try things out and see how the market responds.

“You have to see whether you're producing anything valuable, he says. “You just try to do it and see what works. That was my experience. 

“If I had been really lucky, I would have been born with some exceptionally great skills, like understanding microbiology. Imagine how much value I could create in the world,” he continues. “But I don't have those skills. So you just don't know what the world is going to see as being good. So you try different things, and hopefully, if you're lucky, something connects.”

CARVING OUT A NICHE IN TECH AND STARTUPS

Peter’s first book deal back in 1997 was unplanned. He’d been working for a telecom company in Japan and focused on the question of why some technology companies are able to surf through new ways of technology, while others fail. 

The work resulted in a white paper, and then a book deal for The Technology Leaders: How America's Most Profitable High-Tech Companies Innovate Their Way to Success.  

Timing is everything! And for Peter the moment couldn’t be better for this and his second book, Net Profit, Both were published at the start of the Internet age and the Dot Com boom. Peter naturally fell into a tech-startup specialist role and became a sought-after guest on major TV networks. 

Peter went on to write about e-commerce and investment in e-commerce. These grew from his original book and opened the door to further exploration into startups and leadership. 

Of all Peter’s early books, one is timeless and still used a lot today: Value Leadership, written in 2002. He and others still use it when teaching about corporate social responsibility. 

A BOOK PROPOSAL IS A GREAT TOOL FOR WRITING A BOOK

Peter readily admits that although he has written 15 books, writing a book is not easy. He uses a couple of tools to make it easier and make the whole experience flow  as smoothly as possible.

“A book proposal is a great place to start when you're writing a book,” he says. “In fact, it’s incredibly helpful.”

Peter’s process looks like this:

  1. Begin a proposal by outlining everything that he wants to include in each chapter. 
  2. Simultaneously, do research and gather case studies, articles, content from other books or anything else that he might want to quote from or include in his own book.
  3. When each chapter outline is complete, he begins interviewing experts he wants to include in his book.
  4. Chapter deadlines given to his publisher.
  5. He begins writing his book.

IMPORTANCE OF SETTING AND MEETING BOOK WRITING DEADLINES

“When I set a deadline, I tell the publisher when I'm going to get you these chapters. I feel like I cannot let anything stop me from actually doing it. I have to do what I say I'm going to do. It's deeply, deeply ingrained in me. So I do it. 

He adds that working on a first chapter is always a bit stressful, because you don't really know what the book is about. “I'm always wondering, when I read the first chapter, whether it's gonna be anything like what I thought it was gonna be like, but usually it is!”

WRITE WHEN YOUR MIND IS AT ITS BEST

Peter recommends that entrepreneur-authors find out what part of the day their mind works at its best. For him, it’s right after breakfast. He writes for several hours and then, after a run, he doesn’t feel like his writing focus is at its best. So he gears down a notch and focuses on research. 

Learn more: If you got a lot from this episode, listen to:

Bestselling Author Tells How His Books Built His Career

And this interview with Paul Epstein, who highly recommends working with a book coach:

Entrepreneurs, The World Needs Your Book. Don’t Let Anyone Talk You Out of It

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ABOUT THE HOST

The Published Author Podcast is hosted by Josh Steimle, founder of Published Author. Josh is a book author himself and his article writing has been featured in over two dozen publications including Time, Forbes, Fortune, Mashable, and TechCrunch. He's a TEDx speaker, the founder of the global marketing agency MWI, a skater, father, and husband, and lives on a horse farm in Boston. Learn more at JoshSteimle.com.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Josh Steimle:

Welcome to the Published Author Podcast where we help entrepreneurs learn how to write a book and leverage it to grow their business and make an impact. I’m your host, Josh Steimle.
Today my guest is Peter Cohan. Peter is or has been a professor, consultant, entrepreneur, investor. He's even been in a movie, and he's the author of 15 books, including his latest, Goliath Strikes Back: How Traditional Retailers Are Winning Back Customers from Ecommerce Startups. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Cohan:

Thanks a lot. I’m delighted to be here.

Josh Steimle:

I’m excited to have you on. We were talking before the episode how we have a lot in common in terms of our interests and places we've been and worked, and I was reading through your bio, and there's so much in there. I felt like I can't read this, because it's going to take me the first 10 minutes of the episode to read through it, but it's so interesting and fascinating. But give us a little bit of a taste of who you are and where you come from, and how you got to the point where you are today, having become the author of 15 books. [inaudible 00:01:07] start.

Peter Cohan:

Well, I have students, I teach undergraduate and master students at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass, and when I introduce myself, I always start off by telling them how confused I was when I was in college. So my first career goal as a freshman was to be a poet. And I always pause when I tell people that, and it's kind of difficult when you're wearing a mask, but I'm just trying to help them imagine what it would be like to have a conversation with their parents and say, I want to be a poet and how terrified the parents would be and what they would try to do to kind of deal with the situation. So I don't know exactly what happened, but my father tells me that what happened was he told me to look up poet in the Yellow Pages. I don't know if your listeners know what the yellow pages is, but assuming that they do, I tried to find poet in the Yellow Pages according to the story, and couldn't find it. So I changed what I was going to do. I used to sculpt, so I thought maybe I should be an architect. So then I went to Harvard Graduate School of Design, they had this program called Career Discovery, and my discovery was that I wasn't very good at being an architect.
So I was feeling like I was in real trouble, like, what am I going to do with my life. But to make a long story short, I had started programming computers when I was 13, and I don't know how this happened, but I remember being a junior in college and looking out the window of my dorm room and thinking I think computers are going to have a huge impact on the world in the next several decades, and I'm really interested in strategy and computer. So I thought, what I’ll focus my attention on is how to help technology companies grow, how to provide consulting to large or any kind of technology company and help it figure out how to grow. I thought that would be a really interesting thing to do, so I spent – I thought, well, I'm going to go out and work in a technology company, I got a degree in electrical engineering and I thought, I’ll go and spend time in a technology company for a couple of years, and then apply to my business school and get an MBA because you couldn't get into consulting without an MBA.
So I went to work at this technology company, and I went to graduate school at MIT, and I lost my job at the first company I worked with, so I went to the head of career counseling at the Sloan School at MIT, and he introduced me to this consulting firm founded by some Sloan School professors; and I went to work there, and that was the most spectacular piece of luck in my entire lucky career. I’ve had bad luck and good luck, but that was a really tremendous piece of good luck, because I loved working there, the people were great. I didn't have an MBA at that point, but I was able to do consulting. The firm focused on helping companies manage technology and use technology to benefit themselves. So I did that, and I loved it, I met my wife there; and I also met a guy who I worked with when I started my own consulting firm in 1994, I worked with him, I’ve been working with him for ever since, and we worked together. He was my first manager on the first project that I worked on at that consulting firm.
So I’ll sort of speed it up a little bit, but I've basically been doing that for the last, you know, since then, really, working and doing that. I mean, I ended up getting an MBA, I went to work for a professor at Harvard Business School named Michael Porter who's a sort of an expert on business strategy, and then was an internal consultant for several years, started my own firm in 1994. I've done about 150 consulting projects for companies, a lot of them in Japan to help them to understand new business opportunities created by changing technology, and figure out strategies to take advantage of that. I also started to invest in startups, and I've invested in a total of seven, three failed, two were sold for over $2 billion, and one is supposed to go public on June 1 through a SPAC merger, which when it was announced in January, it was valued at about $9 billion. So I've had a little bit of luck with the investing thing. I’ve also written, as you mentioned, 15 books, I have columns with Forbes and Inc, and I have been teaching business strategy and entrepreneurship since 2000, about 20 years at Babson College and in Wellesley. So that's sort of a quick summary.

Josh Steimle:

What an amazing career. And to jump into the book side of things, what was the inspiration for your very first book, and when did that come about?

Peter Cohan:

Well, that came about in about 1997. I did my – one of my first consulting projects was for a large telecom company in Japan called NTT. And the head of R&D was interested in the question of why it is that some technology companies are able to sort of surf through new waves of technology and others fail. And so, I sort of did a research report on that, did some case studies, I think some of the companies that I looked at, I can't remember all of them, but Microsoft, Hewlett Packard were a couple of them. And after I did the study, we developed a white paper, sort of summarizing some of the key findings, and we shared that with some people; one of our clients said you should write a book about that. So I thought, well, I've always wanted to be a writer, and I love to write a book. And so, I thought, I’m going to try to do this. So the first thing that I did was, I talked to somebody who I knew who had written a book, business person who had written a book, and I said, do you know anybody who might be interested in this idea, and he turned me over to somebody at Harvard Business School Publishing, and the first thing they said is you should develop a book proposal. So they have this sort of process for what does a book proposal look like. And I did the book proposal and got some feedback from them, and they gave me some very useful feedback and also turned me down.
So I talked to – the fellow who introduced me to them also introduced me to his publisher, a firm in San Francisco called Jossey-Bass, which was a really good management publisher, and they gave me a contract. So I had my first publishing contract, and I wrote the book, and it was called The Technology Leaders: How America's Most Profitable High-Tech Companies Innovate Their Way to Success. And I remember that once I had written the book, I discovered that you have to spend more time promoting the book than you do writing it. It's a whole new part of the process is trying to get out there. So I remember sending a copy of the book to a producer at CNBC, and all of a sudden I found myself on CNBC on television for the first time in my life. So I ended up doing a lot of television interviews, going on CNBC, because I knew about technology and stocks and this was sort of during the dotcom in the 90s...

Josh Steimle:

Right, this is when the internet was becoming a thing.

Peter Cohan:

I did that. I also ended up – there was an amazing time where people would invite you to give speeches all over the world, and fly you there and pay you to do it, I mean, it was just a spectacular time of opportunity.

Josh Steimle:

So that book really helped you launch kind of to the next level in your career, it sounds like.

Peter Cohan:

It did, and it also kind of – I don't know where I got this idea, but I was really – this was at a time when the internet was just getting started. And I was meeting – I was going to conferences and meeting all these CEOs of companies that became sort of luminaries in the dotcom era, and I wrote a book called Net Profit, which was sort of the biggest book that I did in terms of people buying it and people were inviting me to go on television. I was on Good Morning America. I was on CNN. I was being interviewed by all the newspapers. I was flying all over the world, and startups were asking me to invest in their company. So I was being invited to invest in interesting startups because I was seen as sort of somebody who knew something about this emerging era. It was like a spectacular piece of luck, and I was doing all this consulting work, I mean, it was just an incredible boom to my business. It was really amazing.

Josh Steimle:

You brought up the word luck a few times, but you were prepared for this, you had some writing skills, you had some background. When you look back on how you were prepared for that moment and able to capture the advantage in that moment, what were some of the things that helped you?

Peter Cohan:

Well, I think at that time, people were struggling with how to think about what to invest in and what not to invest in. Everything sort of seemed to be going up in the market. Many times you could go public with no revenues, and it was hard to just – it was hard for people who are in the general public to decide what to invest in, what not to invest in. So anyway, because I had worked for Michael Porter at Harvard Business School, and had done consulting for so many years, I had sort of a mindset of how do you evaluate the inherent profitability of an industry, and how do you evaluate whether a company has the capabilities needed to gain market share and to grow in an attractive industry. So I basically used that framework to evaluate nine different sort of industries within the internet space, if you will, and that was sort of what the book is about. So because of that background and how to think about industries and competition, I was, perhaps, I was not the only person in the world who could do that, but I just happen to get a book out there that did that, and it turned out to be the right thing at the right time, it's the wave of – the internet boom was cresting. So I mean, I could look and I can tell somebody do, you know, replicate that in your life and you'll have great success. But the problem is at the time I had no idea that that was going to happen, I just wanted to write this book; and it was just, looking back on it, I didn't know that was going to happen.

Josh Steimle:

Now, what kind of background did you have in writing – I mean, you're interested in poetry, so you evidently were drawn to writing, but had you had any practice or focus of education on writing when you were younger?

Peter Cohan:

Well, I mean, I went to high school in Massachusetts, where there's a lot of education in writing, a lot of emphasis on writing, I won some writing awards. I won the New England Poetry Prize. I won an essay prize for my writing. So I had experience in high school in doing that, and I don't know, I just had a lot of confidence, and that was something that I would just naturally do. But I had never written any books. It wasn't until after I had written books that I started writing columns, because I really liked to be able to share my thoughts on what was going on every day, and a book takes longer than that, you can't get your thoughts out there as quickly. So anyway, the short answer is, I had a modest amount of experience before I started writing.
But another thing, as I may have kind of hinted at, from my very confused career development or whatever, is that you really don't know what you're good at, until you start trying to do it and seeing what kind of response you get from the market, from potential readers or anybody who might, you know, editors, whatever – people in the world who could see whether you're valuable or not. You don't really know whether you're producing anything valuable, until you just try to do it and see what works and what doesn't work. So that was my experience. I mean, if I had been really lucky, I would have been born with some exceptionally great skills, like, these days, I think, what if I could, if I had the best skills in the world for understanding microbiology, how much value I could create in the world. But I don't have those skills, and I don't know how you know at an early age whether you have them or not. And so, sometimes you just kind of don't know what the world is going to see as being good. So you try different things, and hopefully, you're lucky and something kind of connects.

Josh Steimle:

So I don't know how much you want to focus on the other books that you wrote, but can you take us through a quick timeline of the other books and pull out some highlights and what was the motivation for each of these books?

Peter Cohan:

Yes, well, Net Profit, I think just came out of my realization as I was going out and talking about technology companies and talking on CNBC about internet stocks that nobody really had a good handle on how to think about what's good and what's bad. So that's sort of why I wrote that. And then, I thought I'm talking about things from the perspective of the people who are developing the technology, but what about the companies that are trying to figure out how to use it. And so, then I wrote a book called the E-Profits which was about that. And interestingly enough, it was about that time that Professor Clayton Christensen, who passed away sadly, I started writing his things about the Innovator's Dilemma. And I met with him several times, he was – I don't know how this kind of happened, but I remember going to his office, and he shared with me copy of his book Innovator's Dilemma, which I have somewhere in my bookshelf. And I was just really intrigued by his ideas about disruption, and about what large organizations should do about disruptive technologies, and I kind of got into a bit of a debate, like, I have sort of a different view of what the company should do. And so, that was sort of what was in – E-Profits was part of that – part of that was how should incumbent companies manage disruptive technologies. And that's sort of been a theme that I’ve kind of been quite interested in.
I also, at that point, towards the end of the dotcom bubble, wrote a book about e-Stocks, how to invest in stocks for – by the time it came out, it was sort of too late. So this is one of the things that happens really quickly. In fact, I remember going and interviewing, I guess, I can't remember why it was, but I was on – I think I was on some TV program, and the Governor of New Jersey was on there. It was in August of 2001. It was right before 9/11. I was doing TV things right before 9/11, and right after 9/11, like, in October of 2001, going into New York after that. And obviously, the whole thing about doing anything with the internet was sort of over. It was like, I don't know, I was doing it out of sort of instinct, just because you have a book, you have to do something, but there was no real opportunity there. So then I was sort of dormant for a few years, and then what happened – actually, it wasn't that long before some of the major companies at the time, Enron and WorldCom went bankrupt, and you realized that they were just frauds. And so, that really also kind of galvanized me to write a book, I thought is it possible to be a good person and ethical person, and lead a successful business.
So I wrote a book called Value Leadership, which has, sort of, had a lot of legs, in a way. I mean, I still use it in teaching about corporate social responsibility. It came out in 2002 or 2003, and I remember going around the world giving speeches about this book. In fact, I remember going to Hong Kong to give a speech about this, and the meeting was in November, it was delayed because there was something called SARS going on in Asia. And so, there's so many – I had a lot of interesting things happened to me on that particular visit to Hong Kong, but I gave a lot of speeches about that book, and still use it now, in my courses. And then, I was sort of dormant in terms of writing books for a while, and I got contacted by somebody who asked me if I could write a biography, or a book about the CEO of Boeing. There's a guy named Jim McNerney, who became CEO of Boeing.
It's kind of interesting because in 2001 there was a competition at General Electric to see who is going to succeed Jack Welch. And I was writing these articles about why the CEO of GE who succeeded him was not the right person, and it would have been better if they had picked Jim McNerney. And somebody read that and basically I wrote a book about called You Can't Order Change, which was about that situation, about how Jim McNerney lost out on the succeeding Jack Welch and went on to be CEO of 3M and then Boeing, and he was, at the time, very successful CEO. So certainly, it was sort of, in a way, a follow-up to the Value Leadership book, because he was basically, I think, a good person who did a good job of turning around a company that was in trouble because of a bad leader. So I thought it was sort of an interesting book to write. And then there's more, but you know, I will – if you want I can keep going for the rest of them.

Josh Steimle:

You make it sound like it was easy to write these books, but what was your process like, was it you just sat down, you started writing, you kicked it out, did you have an outlining process, how did you approach this? And how did that process evolve over time, as you got more experienced as an author?

Peter Cohan:

Yes, it's very hard to actually write a book. I do make it sound easy, part of me is because I realize that I could talk about this for much longer, but I’m trying to get the highlights out. But the book proposal is a great place to start. That is one of the things that I did not realize when I first started writing was having a book proposal is incredibly helpful, because in the book proposal, one of the things that you do is you outline what's going to be in each chapter. So when you start writing the first thing you do is you, what I do is I look at the paragraph that I wrote about what's going to be in this chapter. And then I have gotten to the point where I can write a chapter, a draft of a chapter every two weeks. So if I have a book that's going to be nine chapters, then I can get a first draft done in about five months, which is pretty fast. And part of it is because I spend a week just getting research articles, books, cases, anything that's been written about the topic of the chapter, copying it into a Word document; and then, at the same time, I’m doing that, I’m scheduling and doing interviews with the people that I want to write about. And so, I do all that, and once I’ve got that, it becomes – I know what the outline of the chapter is going to be, I can sort of figure out which pieces of research and writing and interviews are going to go into which of the parts of the chapter, and then I just kind of discipline myself to do it.
So one of the things that I learned about in consulting and kind of got ingrained into me in consulting is the importance of setting deadlines and meeting deadlines. So when I set a deadline, and I tell the publisher, here's what I'm [inaudible 00:22:07] I’m going to get you these chapters, I feel like I cannot let anything stop me from actually doing it. I have to do what I say I’m going to do. It's like deeply, deeply ingrained in me. So I do it, and I’ve been doing it so many times that it doesn't feel that unnatural; it feels like when you're first getting started with that first chapter, it's a bit stressful, because you don't really know what the book is about – when you write a book proposal, you don't really know what it's about, because you haven't done all the research, you have some ideas, but you're always – I’m always wondering when I write the first chapter, whether it's going to be anything like what I thought it was going to be like, but usually it is. So I think that is extremely helpful for me to get things done. And for the last, I don't know, four books I’ve written, I’ve had the same publisher, and it's really great to work with somebody who just – it just clicks and that makes it a lot easier as well.

Josh Steimle:

So do you have a daily process that you use, like, do you work always in the morning? Do you work a certain amount of time? How do you manage the day to day structure of your writing process?

Peter Cohan:

Well, one thing I think people should do, and what I do is I sort of find out what part of the day am I the most – is my mind working the best. And usually, it's right after breakfast. So I usually start writing right after breakfast, and I will go for several hours, and then, usually I can't really do that much writing after – I usually go out running, and after I come back, I can't really do much writing, my mind is not there. But what I can do is something relatively mindless, like, doing research, kind of looking for articles and stuff like that. So I kind of split up the day between the stuff that really requires me – the things I need to do that really require my mind to be working sort of at its maximum capacity, which is limited, but there is something there is in the morning when it's working really well. And then after that, I just kind of do other stuff. But fortunately, when my mind is working really well I can get things done.

Josh Steimle:

Are you able to reuse a lot of the work that you do as an instructor at Babson, I mean, do you overlap research for what you're teaching and what you're writing, and if you're still involved in businesses and investing – do all these things end up overlapping, so when you're working on one thing, it's actually benefiting you in two or three or more areas?

Peter Cohan:

Yes, it definitely benefits me in teaching. I can teach courses based on the books. I've created several courses based on the books, so that's been super helpful. For example, one of the things that I think I haven't talked about yet, but you mentioned before we started recording, was I'm interested in sort of regional entrepreneurial ecosystems. And I have been, one of things I didn't mention is that my family has several generations of experience starting successful businesses in Central Massachusetts. And I was just fascinated with the fact that when I was growing up, everybody in my generation of, in sort of people that we knew, they all left Worcester, that's the town in Central Massachusetts where my family's from; and they all left. And I just found that really fascinating, why is everybody leaving, you [inaudible 00:26:01] get it for your generations, great grandfather, grandfather, parents' generation, they're doing things there, and now it's over, and everybody's left. Why is that? So I'd just been fascinated with that question. And so, I coauthored a book with a professor at Babson named Sri Rangan called Capital Rising, which is about national entrepreneurial ecosystems, why do some countries have more private capital flows than others, why do they have more entrepreneurial activity that others. Then I wrote a book about why – this was really the most recent book that'd sort of been successful, this book called Startup Cities, which is about why some cities have more startup activity than others. And I developed a framework called the Startup Common.
And then I also wrote a book earlier called Hungry Start-up Strategy, which is based on my, how do you evaluate what to invest in as an angel investor or as a venture capitalist, how do you decide what is the one out of maybe hundred thousand or a million startups that are actually going to give you a return on your investment if you put money into it. That's what that book is all about. So essentially, to answer your question, I'm teaching multiple courses, taking students to various different places, I’m starting one tomorrow that is taking people virtually to the Middle East to compare Israel and the United Arab Emirates using these frameworks from the Capital Rising book, the National Entrepreneurial Ecosystem book, Startup Cities and Hungry Start-up Strategy, using those frameworks to sort of explain to students the differences between two cities within the same region of the world.

Josh Steimle:

Let's get into your most recent book, Goliath Strikes Back – what was the inspiration for this book? Why did you feel like this book needed to be written?

Peter Cohan:

Well, the previous book before that was a book called Scaling Your Startup, and one of the things that I kind of really noticed in Scaling Your Startup, which I also noticed in Startup Cities, was that one of the things that makes the biggest difference between companies and regions that have a lot of success in startups, is the number of people who are what I call marathoners, people who can take an idea, who can turn it into a startup, can develop a product that people want to buy, and then get a lot of people to buy that product, and then take that company public, and then keep running it and keep it growing rapidly as a public company. Those are what I call marathons, and the more marathoners you have in your city or your region, the more successful your entrepreneurial ecosystem is going to be. So I thought to myself, clearly, this idea of a marathoner is an easy thing to talk about, but what about other kinds of – and then I started thinking, what is that strategic mindset of a person who's a marathoner, how do they think about the world. And then I was wondering about some other kinds of companies that can be turned around, like, somebody can come into an existing company, and they can take a company that's going down, sort of, like Jim McNerney did at Boeing. When he took over at Boeing, it had a lot of problems with its previous CEO, and they kicked him out and they brought somebody in from the board to fix it. And that was Jim McNerney, and he turned it around.
So what is the mindset of somebody like that or, in the book, I talked about, what was my favorite case study, which was of Best Buy. Best Buy was in a very similar situation, the CEO had left in a cloud, reported a $1.2 billion loss when he left and somebody came in from the outside who was on the board named Hubert Joly, who had been a McKinsey consultant, and had run some companies in France, and they brought him in to be CEO, and he turned it around. So he had, what I call, a fast follower mindset. People who are marathoners, I kind of called it in the book, what I call, create the future mindset; they can create the future of an industry, and that's why they keep doing that, and that's why the company keeps growing. And then you've got a third mindset, which I called head in the sand, which is that you run the company looking in the rearview mirror; I mean, you run the company with the mindset of somebody who may have been successful doing something 20 years ago, and they think the world is still that way, or they want the world to be that way, because that's what they're comfortable with. And so, they keep making decisions as if the world was still the way it was 20 years ago, but it's not, and then they run the company into the ground. So essentially, that's what the book is about.
And if I go back to my first book, The Technology Leaders, it's sort of trying to answer that same question, which is why some companies keep innovating and keep staying at the vanguard, and a lot of them fail. And, I guess, that last book Goliath Strikes Back is what the answer to that is. But one of the things that I discovered, which I didn't expect at the beginning was, that I thought the only successful businesses are ones that are run by create the future mindsets, but what I discovered was that you can have a mindset of somebody who is a fast follower, like Hubert Joly, I would say, or, I guess, they were both McKinsey consultants, maybe there's something about that. But they are able to come into a troubled company and figure out what's wrong and fix it and turn it around in a sustainable way. So that's another kind of a mindset. To me, that was the big insight for me from that book was you don't just have to be a create the future CEO to have success, you can have – there's a right mindset for a turnaround kind of situation as well.

Josh Steimle:

And so this book, this led to the Goliath Strikes Back then.

Peter Cohan:

This was the Goliath Strikes Back.

Josh Steimle:

But this is Goliath Strikes Back.

Peter Cohan:

Yeah. The previous book was Startup – Scaling Your Startup, which was sort of about how do you go from an idea into a multibillion dollar company. So I wrote about that, I taught a course on that in the MBA program at Tel Aviv University in January of 2020, and it was really well received by the students. And I just remember that because I got out of there, and not too long after the world shut down because of COVID-19.

Josh Steimle:

Now, this book seems fairly timely, because during COVID, we've all moved to more ecommerce, it seems like, I mean, Amazon is doing great, and all these DoorDash and all these ecommerce companies are doing fantastic; and, of course, retail companies were shut down by force. And so, in this day and age now with the pandemic, which hopefully is coming to an end soon, but how are retailers, brick and mortar retailers really able to compete against ecommerce in light of this kind of kick start we've had towards kind of forcing everybody to go ecommerce?

Peter Cohan:

Yeah, I mean, that's a very interesting question. I started writing the book in the fall of 2019, so it was before the pandemic, and then when COVID-19 hit, I kind of rewrote the chapters to reflect what was going on with COVID-19. And there are a couple of interesting situations, but one of the ones that I thought was most interesting was, as you alluded to, people have been talking about this thing called digital transformation for years and COVID-19, basically, accelerated that. They just didn't talk about it anymore. They realized I'm not going to survive if I don't do anything about it – do something about this. But what Best Buy had done, which I thought was really interesting was that they had already set the groundwork for allowing people to order online and pick up outside the store without having a lot of interaction with other people. And, in fact, they had an advantage over Amazon, which I thought was really interesting, because Amazon was – people were ordering kind of basic supplies from Amazon, and they were putting all their attention on meeting those orders for basic supplies. And so, if you wanted to order a computer or a flat screen TV, it was just uncertain how long it was going to take for Amazon to ship that to you. But if you ordered it at Best Buy, you could order it that day and pick it up at the store later in the afternoon. And because something like 70% of Americans are within a 15-minute drive from a Best Buy store, that was a much better delivery model for consumers than Amazon. So that was an example of a brick and mortar store that actually had an advantage because its stores were close to people, and they weren't waiting for Amazon to deliver it, like, Amazon couldn't tell you when you were going to get it. I don't know if they fixed that problem, but I do think that Amazon has clearly been building out infrastructure, building warehouses and delivery networks; they've built a huge logistics in the system to be closer to the people who are receiving their goods. So in a way, they're kind of seeing the value of physical stores, which is ironic because they started off kind of succeeding because they had no physical stores.

Josh Steimle:

So do you think Best Buy can maintain that advantage over Amazon, or, do you think Amazon's going to eventually encroach on their space – I mean, they're obviously in Whole Foods, but that's a different category – but if they get into, I mean, Amazon could launch theoretically a chain of electronics or home appliance stores, things like that, and that would really give Best Buy a run for its money, it seems like – what would buy Best Buy be able to do in that type of situation?

Peter Cohan:

Well, this is another interesting thing. First of all, Best Buy, one of the things that Hubert Joly did at Best Buy, which I thought was quite interesting was that they had this problem of showrooming, which I’m certainly familiar with, because I’ll go into a physical store to sort of see what the product is physically, like, a couple of years ago, I bought a mattress and I went in to look at mattresses at a local retail store before COVID-19, and figured out exactly which one I wanted to order; and then I went online and found somebody who would sell it to me at a lower price and deliver it to my house, and the whole thing was much cheaper. That's showroom. And a lot of people were doing that at Best Buy. So what Best Buy decided to do, and Joly came in with to have people come in there, decide they wanted to buy it, and then they would match the lowest online price. So then we get the people in there. And the other piece of it was that they had the people on the sales floor were consultants, they would advise people on how to put together a system of products to meet whatever they were doing. They were creating a home entertainment center or they were building a home computer network or something like that. So the consultants at the sales people at Best Buy were acting as consultants and serving the customer. So that is something that I don't think Amazon can do. I mean, maybe it could do that if it built the stores and hired those people, but, in theory, Amazon could do anything.

Josh Steimle:

But it's quite a barrier to entry to...

Peter Cohan:

[inaudible 00:37:56] Best Buy has sort of gotten an advantage at the moment.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah, that's interesting. A few years ago, I read an article from, I don't remember his name, but he was the founder of Bonobos Pants, and he had an article out there on Medium talking about, there are only three ways to compete with Amazon, and everybody who can't do one of these three things is going to die. And one of them was providing an in-person experience that Amazon can't duplicate online, which is what you're talking about with Best Buy here.

Peter Cohan:

Well, another thing that Best Buy did, which I thought was interesting was that they partnered with Amazon. Amazon had, I guess, a Fire TV, kind of a flat screen TV, I think it's called the Fire TV, but Amazon wanted a place to display it, a place where people could go in and look at it. And so, I guess, what they did with Best Buy was they had a part of the floor that was dedicated to this Amazon Fire TV, and probably they shared the revenues on that somehow.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah, and by the way, Kindle works for me, but any electronic product that has the word fire in it, just seems like poor branding to me.

Peter Cohan:

Yeah, I mean, I don't know. Personally, I hadn't thought about that, but I think you're right. You kind of wonder if it's going to go up in flames, I guess, while you're holding on to it or something like that.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah, they have the fire phones, fire TVs...

Peter Cohan:

But I guess, people would probably read the reviews of these different things and decide what to buy, but I can see how the brand new could have been better.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah. So with the latest book then, so when did this come out, Goliath Strikes Back?

Peter Cohan:

It came out in November of 2019, no, November of 2020, sorry. I’m losing track of what year it is, but yeah, November of 2020. So it came out late last year. I think it was supposed to come out in December, but it came out a month early, so yeah, it's pretty recent.

Josh Steimle:

At this point, having published 15 books, is there anything that surprises you or that catches you off guard about the book publishing book writing process?

Peter Cohan:

Well, I guess, the one thing that I have never figured out is how to write a book that somebody is going to want to buy. I mean, I can write a book, I can write lots of books, but, I mean, will anybody buy it? I have no idea. I wish I could figure out how to make every one of my books somebody would actually want to read, and I have never figured that out.

Josh Steimle:

So what's been the reception for Goliath Strikes Back?

Peter Cohan:

Well, I think I’ve got gotten some good reviews, and I've had a lot of fun podcasts. And I think I’ve had people invite me to speak. One of the things that was really great in terms of the benefit of this was that in December, I was invited to give the sort of final presentation at the MIT Sloan 2021 or 2020 Retail Conference, something they have every year. And so, that was really great, I mean, I was on after the CEO of a company called Wayfair, which is big online furniture company. So it was quite an honor. I really appreciated that quite a bit.

Josh Steimle:

And so, this is interesting, this idea of leveraging books – books bring you speaking engagements, books lead to other opportunities in terms of investments. We've seen that in your career as well. You also mentioned that you write columns. You write a column for Inc magazine. And then the other one, where's the other column that you have?

Peter Cohan:

Forbes.

Josh Steimle:

Forbes. And so, you have these columns – talk to us a little bit more about that platform – have you seen where that platform writing for Forbes and Inc, has that been influential and benefiting the exposure that you're able to bring to your books?

Peter Cohan:

Yes, I guess, to me, the biggest thing that's beneficial is the fact that I can get many CEOs on the phone or WebEx or over Zoom or whatever. I find that to be, you know, when I think about – I don't know how many CEO interviews I’ve done, but I started doing a lot of them back in 2011, and I’m guessing, I’ve maybe done 800-1000, I don't know. But I think it's incredibly valuable to, especially if you want to write a book, it's incredibly valuable to be able to talk to the CEO of a company. Obviously, the CEO is not going to tell you everything, they're going to tell you the good stuff. They might tell you some bad things or some things that don't – but basically, it's very valuable to be able to do that. So to me, that is super helpful, because of these connections that I've been able to establish because of these columns, and basically people want to talk to me.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah, I saw this as well, with my first book, it was a series of essays from – well, it was interviews with executives, and my lead in my emails to reach out to them was, hey, I’m writing a column for Forbes, and I’m also working on this book, but I made sure to drop Forbes in there, because I felt like it gave me credibility; and it really did open the door, it made it so much easier for me to get in and talk to executives at Spotify or PayPal or GE, being able to drop that name because it kind of checks a box for the people that you're trying to get through to.

Peter Cohan:

Yeah, I mean, I usually, you know, it's very rare that I will not do an interview with one of these people and write an article built on that interview. So I think usually that's what happens. So they like being written about in Forbes. They like being written about in Inc too. So, I mean, these are ways to be able to have conversations with people. And when I teach students, I think it's super helpful to bring in these contemporary examples of how CEOs are thinking about problems that are happening right now. One of the challenges of teaching is you have all these Harvard Business School cases that are classics, but they're old. So people kind of wonder, why can't we have a more contemporary case, and why can't we have something written by a Babson professor instead of a Harvard professor or something like that. So this is kind of a good middle ground, I’ve written five or six cases, coauthored them, but cases take a long time; whereas an article, you can interview somebody, and then later in the week, you could have an article, so it's more contemporary, and I think that's what students really like more plus they can do a lot of Google research and find out all the numbers and all that. But what they can't get is that kind of conversation with the decision makers, which you get from these interviews, so it's valuable.

Josh Steimle:

So with these first 15 books under your belt, you must have ideas for more books as well that you're going to write in the future. Are you working on anything right now?

Peter Cohan:

Yes, what I’m working on right now is, it sounds kind of almost pompous, but I’m trying to figure out the future of business strategy. I mean, I've been teaching business strategy, I’ve been consulting on it for years. Most of the ideas seemed to be based on Michael Porter, who I worked with, when I got out of business school, and I'm thinking to myself, are there new ideas, I mean, I wrote a book called Hungry Start-up Strategy which was about strategy for startups, and it was different than Michael Porter. And now I’m thinking about strategy for any company, what is different. And so, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with CEOs and startups about that, and I guess, one of the most basic things that I figured out is that Michel Porter's books were about – strategy content was about maximizing basically return on investment, return on equity, return on capital. And I think today's investors are focused on a different thing, which is expectations meeting growth. So I’ve already written some books on growth. I wrote a book called Disciplined Growth Strategies, and the book on scaling is also about growth. But what this book is or idea, and I’m kind of trying to see if I can publish an article on this before I write the book for a change, but I’m doing a lot of interviews to try to figure out where does growth come from, how does some company produce kind of continuous stream of growth after it goes public and others kind of get – it's the same question I was looking at before, but I’m focusing on these five management processes, and that's sort of what I probably will end up hopefully writing an article about and then writing a book about, this whole topic of what is the future of business strategy.

Josh Steimle:

Well, thank you so much for your time today, Peter. Final question: have you had any time to work on that poetry anymore?

Peter Cohan:

No, it's an interesting point, I mean, by the time I decided I wanted to be a poet, I sort of lost the muse. I mean, I sort of – this is another thing that sounds a little pompous, but there's this guy, a musical composer named Igor Stravinsky, and he wrote this thing called the Rite of Spring, which was this really – people should watch it on – I’m sure you can watch it on YouTube, it's an amazingly creative piece of work. But basically, people asked him about it, and he said, that he was the vehicle through which the Rite of Spring was transmitted from the world of something somewhere out there into the real world. And that's the way I felt when I was writing poetry. It was like, there was something outside of me, and it was using me as the vehicle through which this thing came into the world. And so, I lost the connection with that. So when I lost the connection with that, I stopped writing, and I still haven't gotten it back. So that's why I don't think I will write any more poetry.

Josh Steimle:

Do you ever feel that way with the business writing that you're doing, do you feel like you're channeling something else or that it's flowing through you rather than from you?

Peter Cohan:

No, it's a really different feeling. I can't quite put my finger on it, although I can say that, whatever it was, that was making me write poetry, it's not very much grounded in reality, whereas all this writing about businesses, very grounded in reality.

Josh Steimle:

Well, this has been great to chat with you, Peter, about this process of writing your 15 books. Of course, Peter's most recent book, Goliath Strikes Back is available along with all his other books at Amazon and everywhere else. Thank you so much for being with us here today on the Published Author Podcast, Peter. One last thing, where can people reach out to you and find you if they want to learn more about you and your books?

Peter Cohan:

Well, they could send me an email at [email protected] I’d love to answer any questions anybody has.

Josh Steimle:

Great. Thanks so much for being with us here today, Peter.

Peter Cohan:

Thanks, Josh. Have a great day.

Josh Steimle:

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