Today’s guest is an entrepreneur, artist and the founder of SB Ink, a creative consultancy and agent of social change.
My guest has worked with companies like Disney, Sharpie, Zappos and SXSW. Using common sense, experience and neuroscience, she is proving that to doodle is to ignite your whole mind.
Today’s guest is also an author and aims to teach the world how to master “strategic doodling” in her latest book, The Doodle Revolution.
This was a brilliant, hilarious conversation and I am so glad to share it with you.
Now, let’s hack …
In this 29-minute episode Sunni Brown and Jon discuss:
- Why you should allow yourself to come up with goofy ideas
- Entrepreneurism does not have to be risky
- Learn why Sunni could have never been the inventor of the Pet Rock
- Why Sunni is terrible at calculus and how this makes her awesome
- Sunni on refusing to scale her business
The Show Notes
- Sunni’s Ted talk
- Pet Rock
- The Doodle Revolution
- Sunni On Twitter
- Jon on Twitter
How to Find Your Entrepreneurial Creative Essence
Voiceover: Welcome to Hack the Entrepreneur, the show which reveals the fears, habits, and inner battles behind big-name entrepreneurs and those on their way to joining them. Now here is your host, Jon Nastor.
Jonny Nastor: Hey, hey. Welcome back to Hack the Entrepreneur. I’m so glad you decided to join me again today. My name is Jon Nastor, but you can call me Jonny. Today’s guest is an amazing entrepreneur, artist, and human. She is founder of SB Ink, a creative consultancy, and an agent of social change. She is the author and leader of a global campaign for visual literacy called ‘The Doodle Revolution.’
My guest has worked with companies like Disney, Sharpie, Zappos, and South by Southwest. Using common sense, experience, and neuroscience, she’s proving that to doodle is to ignite your whole mind, and she aims to teach the world how to master strategic doodling in her latest book, The Doodle Revolution.
Every revolution needs a leader. Best known for large-scale strategic doodles and a book she wrote called Gamestorming, a book that outlines visual thinking techniques for business, her TED talk on doodling has drawn more than a million views on Ted.com. This was a brilliant and hilarious conversation, and I’m so glad to share it with you today.
Now let’s hack Sunni Brown.
Before we get going, I want to take a minute to thank the awesome sponsor of Hack the Entrepreneur, FreshBooks, for making my life easier and for sponsoring this show. What is the one thing that I am not good at? I am absolutely horrible at staying on top of my bookkeeping and accounting for my business. I’m terrible at it.
FreshBooks is designed for small business owners like you and like me. FreshBooks integrates directly with three things that I use every day in my business: PayPal, Stripe, and MailChimp. But it goes beyond that now. I can fully integrate it with my credit card and my bank accounts, so I don’t even have to worry about keeping track of my expenses. It does it all for me. The only thing it doesn’t do for my business is actually make the money, but it keeps track of it all in the other side — which is amazing to me.
To start your 30-day free trial today, go to Freshbooks.com/Hack, and don’t forget to enter, ‘Hack the Entrepreneur’ in the ‘How did you hear about us?’ section.
Alright, we are back with another episode of Hack the Entrepreneur. We have an interesting and awesome guest today. Sunni, welcome to the show.
Sunni Brown: Thank you. Thanks for calling me awesome.
Jonny Nastor: OK. This is going to be fun, so let’s jump straight into it.
Sunni Brown: OK.
Jonny Nastor: Sunni, as an entrepreneur, what is the one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your successes so far?
Sunni Brown: Woah. That’s kind of unfair to boil it down to one. It’s a lot. It’s elaborate. Give me a moment. The one thing that I do that’s contributed the most to my success?
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, that you feel, just based strictly on yourself.
Sunni Brown: OK. I’ve never responded in this way before, but one thing that I’m consistent at is I’m kind to other people, which is a strange requirement for an entrepreneur because, believe me, I have met entrepreneurs who are complete dicks. Can I cuss on your show?
Jonny Nastor: Yes, please do.
Sunni Brown: It’s not like kindness is a prerequisite. I have obviously a lot of traits that made entrepreneurism viable for me — but they change over time – but one thing I’ve consistently been is really good with customers and clients. Maybe I’m a psychologist to their challenges. I’m very unflappable. I don’t get flustered when things go wrong. I celebrate successes, and I listen really well. I think that the word of mouth from being in a relationship with a customer or client has paid off in the long run. I’ve never responded in that way to a question like that, but it’s just what came to mind.
Jonny Nastor: That’s good. I like it.
Sunni Brown: I’m rather pleasant.
Jonny Nastor: It was a lot of things, from not having one. It’s good. You say that you have inherently a lot of traits that make you a good entrepreneur, although they change and fluctuate over time. What is one of those things?
Why You Should Allow Yourself to Come up with Goofy Ideas
Sunni Brown: Well, I definitely have a creative essence. I do not have judgment about ideas. A lot of times, I talk to people who are real hard on their own ideas, and I don’t have that. In other words, I can come up with 100 ideas in a day easy. It’s almost a compulsion, and I don’t harsh myself if some of them are stupid. It’s just not a thing.
I understand there’s a point at which judgment and discernment is appropriate, but I’m not really the kind of person who gives myself a hard time for coming up with goofy ideas. That is really helpful because then whenever I’m like, “Hey, let’s try something,” I don’t get a lot of resistance from myself about it. I can forgive myself and move on. It’s very improvisational. That’s been helpful.
Jonny Nastor: I think that’s great. You know that there needs to be discernment, obviously, and a filter sort of for your ideas that ever, say, see the light of day further, but at what stage of the idea does that happen for you?
Entrepreneurism Does Not Have to Be Risky
Sunni Brown: Let me think about that. I think a lot of people associate entrepreneurism with risk, to a high level of risk taking. But I am not actually a risk lover. I’m a very calculated risk taker, which, of course, really good entrepreneurs are calculated risk takers. I would never pursue an idea that I didn’t think had real widespread appeal, significant value, and was not too difficult to launch. I’m just not that person. I’m trying to think of something that somebody tried to sell that was just such a hard sell. I would never pick up an idea that was a hard sell and try to push it up the mountain like Sisyphus or whatever. You know what I mean?
Jonny Nastor: I do know what you mean.
Sunni Brown: I’m glad I’m not that person because I know that there are people that believe so strongly in one idea or one passion that they have that they’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get it in the world. I’m definitely not that person. I’m much more pragmatic. I’m like, “Listen, this is creative, but it also is viable.” I don’t take risks that are too risky, frankly.
Jonny Nastor: Fair enough. I guess it’s not going for the easy wins necessarily. It’s just not bashing your head against the wall because you believe in something.
Sunni Brown: Yeah. That’s the thing. I have a lot of empathy for … I really wish I could come up with an example. OK, like the Pet Rock person, the person who invented Pet Rocks. To me, at the time, it sounded preposterous because I didn’t think anybody would buy a Pet Rock. Remember those?
Jonny Nastor: I do. I do remember those. It’s the most genius invention ever.
Sunni Brown: I know.
Jonny Nastor: Once it broke through, of course.
Learn Why Sunni Could Have Never Been the Inventor of the Pet Rock
Sunni Brown: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t know what motivated that person to do it. Maybe they had pet rocks at their house, and people kept coming and saying, “This is awesome. Can I have one?” And so they got the clue that there was a market for it. Can you imagine having a passion like, “I am so deeply passionate about putting googly eyes on rocks that I must spend energy and time making the world love them.”
That is a risk that I would not take. I would just be like, “I don’t care if this Pet Rock flies.” It’s not a big thing for me, but I’m glad there’s people that do that. I honestly don’t take risks that I think I’m going to have to expend an exorbitant amount of energy to get them to launch. That’s just not who I am.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. To go with the Pet Rock, it’s not only to have that passion, but to be willing to go sit down maybe at somebody’s office and present this idea to them, in all honesty.
Sunni Brown: I know. Can you imagine?
Jonny Nastor: It’s amazing. You deserve to be so rich forever just for having the guts to do that.
Sunni Brown: Because you’re willing to put yourself out there as the Pet Rock pitch guy.
Jonny Nastor: Not even joking. Totally, this is the future. This is what everybody needs.
Sunni Brown: Yeah. See? Totally. That’s what I mean. Whenever I sell stuff, I already know 100,000% that it’s valuable. It’s easy to sell because I’m like, “This is useful. This is applied in all kinds of areas. If you don’t like it, that kind of makes you a dum-dum.” You know what I mean? I really admire people who would sell things to skeptics because I’m like, “Well, good for you.”
I mean, in some ways, to be fair, I do sell things to skeptics. Selling doodling into corporations is not the easiest thing in the world, but I know that it’s valuable. It’s not a question mark for me, so it doesn’t make the sell complicated.
Jonny Nastor: That’s true. That is an interesting way to look at it because lots of people would look at that and say, “Selling doodling to IBM or something is probably not an easy task.”
Sunni Brown: I just realized the irony of that. I’m like, “Well, technically, I do sell things that seem counter-intuitive in some ways,” but because I know the merit of it, there’s not any vagueness about the value in my mind. You know what I mean?
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. I do.
Sunni Brown: Whereas if I was selling a Pet Rock, I would have a lot of questions about my own judgment.
Jonny Nastor: Yes, so would I. OK. Sunni, there’s a time in every entrepreneur’s life when they realize one of two things. Either they have a calling to make something big in the world or else they simply just cannot work for somebody else.
Sunni Brown: Oh, yeah.
Jonny Nastor: Can you tell me which one of these two you are?
Sunni Brown: I love that you found that dichotomy. I am absolutely, 100% the second one.
Jonny Nastor: Nice.
Sunni Brown: Yeah. 100%.
Jonny Nastor: When did you realize this?
Sunni Brown: Oh, the 14th time that I got fired. No kidding. Yeah. It was not good.
Jonny Nastor: The 13th time you’re like, “I’ve totally got this whole job thing down pat. I can do this.” Like, “I’ve had 13 of them now. I’m great at it”
Sunni Brown: Right. I’m such a master at getting jobs. I’m so good at getting jobs. I can get any job, but I can’t keep the job. The thing is, too, that I think that if you were to interview any of my old bosses, there’s a lot of affection there. I was never a bad person. My biggest trait at the time that got me fired was insubordination because I always had an idea of how you could do something better, but I was never in position to be able to implement that. I always had a realization of when leadership was shitty, and I’m not a person that can follow shitty leadership.
My mom was like, “You are going to be living at home when you’re 35 because you can’t keep a frickin’ job!” Thank God that wasn’t the case because I did not know that I was an entrepreneur truly. I had no idea. It took me a long time to even identify with it because it was not something that I even wanted to be. It was more like, “Oh, you can’t keep a job, so you have to make your own job.”
Jonny Nastor: Fair enough.
Sunni Brown: When I look back, I realize that my mom was an entrepreneur, but I didn’t associate her with that because she was in the health care industry, in hospice specifically. Then later, when I met my dad, who I didn’t know until I was 35, he also was an entrepreneur. In some ways, it was a family genetic and cultural thing, but it was transparent to me. We were all insubordinate in some way.
Jonny Nastor: So shitty management was one of the reasons why you went through 14 jobs. Now you are a manager. You have a consultancy firm, right?
Sunni Brown: Yeah. That’s correct.
Jonny Nastor: How do you make sure that you aren’t a shitty manager?
Sunni Brown: I don’t know. Maybe they think I am shitty. I don’t know.
Jonny Nastor: Is it something you really tried, though? I’m sure you really focus on having a good working environment and a culture and stuff.
Sunni Brown: Oh, yes. I absolutely focus on having good relationships with all my people, and it’s not hierarchical. Obviously, I’m the last decision maker. If the buck falls or the shoe falls, I’m responsible for that. But I am very collaborative in the way that I work. I’m also very transparent. There’s a little bit about me that’s hyper-attentive to people’s emotional states, so if someone’s disgruntled, or confused, or disoriented, or scared, I can detect that. I check in with them, you know? When you’re a boss or when you’re in a leadership position, there’s always a level of information that you’re not going to have because they’re not going to tell you because you’re the boss.
If all my people went to happy hour together, I’m sure they would make jokes that I wouldn’t necessarily know they were making. But I think that they all have the sense that there are not many conversations that we can’t have. I’m always looking out for their own quality of life and the quality of their work and what’s in their best interest. I think that keeps people around.
Jonny Nastor: Wow. You’re just an awesome boss, basically. That’s just what it comes down to.
Sunni Brown: I think my Achilles heel as a boss — and I’ve gotten better about it — remember when I talked earlier about generating a hundred ideas in a day? That spinning, that sort of Tasmanian Devil’s spinning wheel can wear people out. I have to be attentive to that level of generation of ideas because people need breaks.
Jonny Nastor: Right. With the ideas, though, so you have 100 crazy and possibly awesome ideas in a day. How do you decide what it is SB Ink should execute on and what shouldn’t be executed on? Not judging your ideas, but you can’t do 100 ideas a day.
Sunni Brown: That’s right, and that one took me a long time to sort that through. Then it’s like, “Duh,” it’s so obvious now because I have a coach, and she’s amazing. It’s based on core values, obviously, of the company. You have to discern those core values. Core values are not very likely to shift over time, so once you have a real solid anchor around what you care about and what your company brand stands for, then it makes it a lot easier to pursue some of the ideas.
Jonny Nastor: You have a coach that teaches you to have core values?
Sunni Brown: She doesn’t teach me. Everybody has core values. They’re just part of what drives behavior. But a lot of times, they’re unconscious, and a lot of times, people are too scared to make decisions based on core values rather than revenue because there is a risk there. The great part about my coach and my own faith in the entrepreneurial process that I didn’t have in the early years was that it’s actually safe to make decisions based on core values because the word of mouth and revenue will follow that awareness. That just comes from experience and from taking some small risks and then recognizing that you get rewarded for them, even if they’re counter-intuitive to a revenue model.
Jonny Nastor: Right. I like that.
Sunni Brown: Yeah, I do too, man, because when I’m on my death bed, I don’t want to say, “Oh, I sacrificed all my core values for a dollar.” It just doesn’t make any sense in the long game. But when you’re scared, and you’re like, “Shit, how am I going to pay for my people, and how am I going to pay my rent, and how am I going to pay for your website redesign and all that stuff?” It’s easy to make those decisions based on the lowest common denominator or the highest revenue margin project. But then you don’t feel like a good person on some level.
Jonny Nastor: Right, and it doesn’t ultimately even probably benefit you as a company, especially not as a person, but probably even as a company. People start to see through the way you’re acting, and it typically doesn’t come back to help you.
Sunni Brown: Yeah, that’s right. Having integrity around your choices, people will detect that. People are very smart, and they know that. But the weird thing is, I used to think that would be an indicator of success. Maybe it is. But I’m still kind of weighing that question because I’ve noticed you can actually have an utter lack of integrity around your own work, and you will still attract a lot of people who are into that. You can actually create a persona that’s totally false and have acolytes around you that are into it. You can have some measure of success being completely unauthentic for a long period of time.
I think that’s fascinating. It’s a very Pollyanna point of view. Like, “How can you succeed if you’re an asshole?” But it happens every day. It’s just a choice that I’ve made. There’s always going to be customers who either A, can’t distinguish because they’re not paying that close attention, or B, are into some of the things that you’re into, and that’s totally doable. Unfortunately, it’s still possible.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. OK, Sunni. You told us at the beginning five or six things that you’re really, really good at, and you’ve kind of continued that. Can you tell us something that you’re absolutely not good at?
Sunni Brown: Did I tell you five or six things I was good at?
Jonny Nastor: You did. I got this giant list. Consistently kind, you have all these traits, ideas. You know how to manage. You’re like an entrepreneurial genius.
Why Sunni Is Terrible at Calculus and How This Makes Her Awesome
Sunni Brown: Yes! Thank you. I’ve been waiting for that one. I’m not good at a ton of stuff. I’m not good at calculus.
Jonny Nastor: Calculus?
Sunni Brown: Yeah. I can’t really do derivatives that well. But what was I going to say?
Jonny Nastor: That was awesome. Calculus. I’ve had a lot of interesting answers, but calculus? That’s the first time I’ve heard calculus.
Sunni Brown: Are you good at calculus?
Jonny Nastor: No. I’m terrible at it. I just thought that was understood amongst all of us, though.
Sunni Brown: OK. It was a strange response. I’ll tell you one thing I had to learn to get good at, so I don’t know if it counts because I’m now good at it. But I wasn’t good at it for years, which is hiring. I was terrible at hiring. I would hire based on the person’s need rather than my need. It would have some overlap, but it was more based on, “Oh, how can I elevate this person?” In other words, here’s what it was.
I’d have a projection onto another person that they were more capable, more competent, and more ready to go than they were. Then I would hire them, and I would find out that their skill level wasn’t as glorified as I thought that it was. So my accuracy on evaluating skill and growth potential was not good. I had to figure that out the hard way. That’s why I have a coach because she’s like, “OK, this is not one of your strengths.” I’m like, “Thank God you pointed that out.” Because I knew that, but I didn’t know how to make it a strength. I just knew it was a weakness. I didn’t know how to make it a strength.
Jonny Nastor: So she identified this problem within you?
Sunni Brown: She did. She’s amazing, my coach. I want to give her a shout out. Her name’s Lyn Christian. She lives in Salt Lake City, and she’s doing what she was born to do, which is coach people. She’s a master coach.
Jonny Nastor: Lyn Christian?
Sunni on Refusing to Scale Her Business
Sunni Brown: Yeah. She’s amazing, and I’m so grateful for her direction and guidance.
I can tell you another thing I’m not good at. I don’t want to scale. I think a lot of people have an interest in scaling, and that is not intriguing to me at all. I don’t know if that’s a negative trait or not, but my business is the size that I want it to be. I’m not particularly interested in growing it. I’m interested in maintaining it.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome.
Sunni Brown: Is it? Oh, that’s cool.
Jonny Nastor: Yes. That’s absolutely amazing because you probably have exactly what you want out of it, right? It seems like when you’re doing it right, you hit sort of a sweet spot in your business where life is good. You get to do the things you want to do in a really cool way. And then, of course, the natural instinct is, “Well, let’s go past this now,” and there’s no turning back once you do that. Now you have this life that you don’t want. You have this business that you don’t want, but it’s yours.
Sunni Brown: Yeah, that’s right. There was, for a long time, that seduction. There was that temptation, and I got approached by a lot of people who wanted to be partners and who wanted to buy the business and scale it. It just didn’t feel right. And I talked to a guy named Andy, who’s in Brighton in England, and he has a UX design company, and we talked about that. He’s like, “At some point, it becomes a lifestyle business.” In other words, it allows you to have the quality of life that you want at the size and responsibility that you want.
He’s the one that sort of first introduced the idea to me that, that’s perfectly suitable. Because in America, it’s like, “Bigger, faster, more!” So there’s a temptation to do it. I always knew I wasn’t interested in that. I’m really grateful to have it at a size, and it’s kind of humming like an engine. I’m really thankful for that because it allows me to write books, which is actually my true passion. That’s my genuine passion.
Everything changes. Things shrink, and they grow. And they shrink, and they grow. So it’s not like you can just, “OK, I’m going to let go of the steering wheel now, and let it ride.” You still have to maintain. You still have to generate clients. You still have so much work you still have to do, but I don’t intend to be the Empire State Building. Not a goal.
Jonny Nastor: That’s cool. We are sitting at the beginning of a new year. Are there some sort of goals or accomplishments that you want to achieve? Do you want to write another book this year? What is it you want to do?
Sunni Brown: Yes. I do. I actually am hosting a retreat next weekend with 12 women entrepreneurs, and the purpose of it is to get real clear on what I want to do for 2015. But I’m pretty clear on it, which is that I’m going to pitch another book. It’s called Untangle, and it’s about perception and storytelling. It sort of decodes the functionality of the mind with respect to perception and teaches people how to … because I’m very much a how-to writer. I’m always like, “Let’s figure out what that is, and then make it really accessible.” That’s kind of my MO. If your book is awesome, you can’t write it in a year. I won’t publish it in 2015 or even be done with it in 2015. But I certainly intend to pitch it to a publisher and start writing it.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome. I look forward to it.
Sunni Brown: Thanks.
Jonny Nastor: Sunni, we’ve got to talk a lot about you and your business in passing. Can you tell people where to find out about your business and your books?
Sunni Brown: Yeah, absolutely. It’s Sunni Brown Ink. It’s Sunni spelled like ‘Sunni,’ so it’s Sunni Brown Ink. Sunni Brown Ink. That showcases all of the work, the books, and the clients and the press. Maybe I should put Pet Rocks on there. I should sell Pet Rocks.
Jonny Nastor: Ooh, you should.
Sunni Brown: People have been looking for them. I wonder if they’re patented.
Jonny Nastor: That was a while ago, so I wonder if it’s still got a patent.
Sunni Brown: Oh, my God. I’ve got to hang up because I’ve got to call the patent office. But that’s a good place to find all of our stuff.
Jonny Nastor: Very cool.
Sunni Brown: I’m also on Twitter quite a bit.
Jonny Nastor: OK. Twitter and SunniBrown.com. I will put the links in the show notes for everyone to find you easily and track you down.
Sunni, thank you so much for spending the time with us. It’s been a lot of fun, and I look forward to watching you not grow.
Sunni Brown: And I look forward to not growing at all.
Jonny Nastor: Thanks.
Sunni Brown: Thanks, Jon. That was awesome. Thanks.
Jonny Nastor: Sunni Brown. Thank you so much. That was such a fun conversation. I don’t remember laughing that hard during one of my interviews in a long time. So I do thank you for that and also for reminding all of us about the Pet Rock. I think that’s really, really cool. My daughter is going to freak out, and she’s never heard of the Pet Rock. She, I know, is going to freak out about a Pet Rock, and she might even make you one and send it to you. I just can tell by the way it’s going to turn out.
So Sunni Brown said a lot of interesting things, a lot of things that you don’t normally hear from an entrepreneur. I loved that about the conversation because she’s very, very successful, yet she’s doing it very much how she wants to do it. But she said one thing, didn’t she? She did. Did you get it? Did you hear it? Let’s do it. Let’s find the hack.
Sunni Brown: It’s actually safe to make decisions based on core values because the word of mouth and revenue will follow that awareness. That just comes from experience and from taking some small risks and then recognizing that you get rewarded for them, even if they’re counter-intuitive to a revenue model.
Jonny Nastor: That’s the hack.
Yes, Sunni, even if they are counter-intuitive to a revenue model, they can be good for your business and for you. That is brilliance, and I thank you so much for that. It’s absolutely true. Core values. This has come up before, and I so strongly believe in this, especially if you’re trying to create a business that you are proud of, a business that really is congruent with you and yourself.
These are usually called ‘lifestyle businesses’ because they’re part of you. To go against your core values just in the name of making money will never, for you, create the perfect lifestyle business, or you’ll never be totally happy with where you got because of the way you got there. You have to make your decisions based on core values and potentially not make some money right now on certain things because it does not agree with what you set out to do.
And it’s true. You take these small risks, like Sunni says, and you are rewarded for them. But you don’t know that until you do it. And you have to do these things, and you have to know that if you follow your core values, the money will follow even though it seems counter-intuitive at the beginning. I thank you for that, Sunni, because that’s a hard, hard thing for people getting into business and starting out.
I think it’s something that you can’t say, “Well, when my business scales to this level, then I’ll start following core values.” It never happens. You have to have these core values from the beginning. It’s essential. It’s essential for happiness of you as a founder and just happiness and success of the business the way you see it.
Thank you so much for that, Sunni. That was good. I just thank you so much for the conversation because it was a lot of fun.
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