Lessons To Work By

Build a healthy, thriving business.

by Brad and Debra Schepp
- Sep 30, 2015

When news about the realities of working for Amazon hit the presses (the 16-hour workdays, the constant pressure, etc.), neither of your authors was surprised. Our family experienced a similar work environment in 1997 when Brad took an executive position with America Online.

As you're making tons of money, don't forget to take a look at your life and assess what the real cost of that dough is

That was during AOL's dizzying growth, just before the Internet bubble burst. We learned some of our most valuable business lessons in those years, and those lessons have informed our business perspectives to this day.

Now, we're going to switch voices and let Brad do the "speaking." But as any self-respecting wife will tell you, Deb may just add a detail or two. Here's how it was to work for what was perhaps the hottest company of its day.

Life at AOL

People were so intent on making gobs of money through stock options they were willing to do anything to hold their jobs at AOL. Some people actually ran from place to place around the office building.

I remember watching one guy as he ran into a bathroom, right into a stall, before he finally stopped so he could sit down. Lesson No. 1 turned out to be: As you're making tons of money, don't forget to take a look at your life and assess what the real cost of that dough is, physically, psychically, emotionally and every other "ally" you hold dear. It was this moment when I began to question the realities of the life I'd dreamed of.

Hire the right people and keep them busy

Once you're lucky enough to find an employee who gets the job done right, quickly and without complaining, keep that person busy! You've found a gem!

Do you remember when the world was carpet-bombed with AOL trial discs? These were CDs that would get you onto AOL so you could fall in love with all you'd find there. These discs were everywhere—in cereal boxes, in magazines, in the post office. It was a marketing triumph.

I worked in AOL's marketing department, which was, in part, responsible for those CDs. But that department also produced books, products for resale through pop up ads and so on. There was a very real need for freelancers such as copywriters, graphic artists, technical writers and programmers at AOL. Once we found freelancers we could count on, you can bet we held onto them and kept them busy.

One of my bosses was adamant about this, and it was from him we learned the lesson. He came from some big-circulation magazine, so he was used to working with freelancers.

If you don't think you can do great work, or produce great products… how can you ever convince others of that?

"Keep the best people you can find busy (lest they become unavailable)," he'd say, and he was right. Great workers aren't easy to find, so count them among your treasures. For AOL, the lesson was in the context of freelancers, but this lesson can apply to any business that hires people, whether they are freelance or not.

Hire right, keep them happy and you'll all live happily ever after.

Make others want your sandbox

"Everyone wants to play in our sandbox," one top AOL manager used to say. As immodest as that sounds, it was true at the time.

Here's the point that applies to any business: Be the kind of company other companies want to work with. You want to be seen as a winner. If you don't think you can do great work, or produce great products and be one of the top companies in your field, how can you ever convince others of that? Companies that make money themselves also make money for other companies. So build your reputation for excellence, and keep it true.

Protect your turf

I will never forget the first time I reserved a conference room for a meeting at AOL. The meeting ran a little long. About 5 minutes after it was supposed to be over another manager marched in his troops, and took the empty spaces at the table where my group was sitting.

Then they started their meeting as if my people weren't there! We were all pretty shocked, but it's a dog-eat-dog world, and he seemed to have the Milk Bones.

We're not suggesting you be a dog. But a little aggressiveness never hurts, especially when it comes down to protecting your turf. Keep an eye on your competitors. What things are they doing right that you can learn from? Keep fighting for what you need.

One boss used to say, "There's really nothing new under the sun." In this case, he was referring to books and topics for books. That sounded pretty smart at the time. But he was dead wrong. After all, who could have conceived of a company like Twitter or Snapchat, Instagram or even Facebook?

There are always new things on the horizon. You don't have all the answers, and neither does anyone else. So keep looking. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep your eyes open for your next great asset.

95 percent can be good enough

If you keep working at something over and over until you deem it perfect… it may never be done, and you'll never move forward

OK, I learned this lesson before AOL, but I've always tried to follow it because it's important (especially for perfectionists).

Here's the thing: If you keep working at something over and over until you deem it perfect—that listing can always be edited one more time, and you can probably find an even better source for such and such product, or even better ways to reach your customers—it may never be done, and you'll never move forward. This type of thinking is a perfectionist's biggest time waster.

Things haven't gotten easier in the workplace despite all this great new technology. Your "To Do" list is probably as big as it ever was, especially if you're still at the beginning stages of growing your business. So do your job well (maybe not perfectly) and move on to the next thing. Very often finished is much better than perfect.

You come first

Here's Deb again: Be careful what you wish for. About six months before Brad's AOL adventure came to an end, I started to mention a thing or two (OK, maybe about a dozen) about how I wasn't pleased with the way the whole thing was working.

All that aggression and dog-eat-dog eating was beginning to show in his driving, his tolerance for little household things that he used to take in stride and in his peace of mind. As much as the money was great, the life had begun to sour.

Happily, life took care of that, and I got my dear and wonderful husband back in one piece. Life is more important than work, and I wouldn't trade today's Brad for AOL Brad for all the stock options in the world. Make sure you're taking care of your life first and then your money.

About the Author

Brad and Debra Schepp are the authors of 20 books, including eBay PowerSeller Secrets and The Official Alibaba.com Success Guide: Insider Tips and Strategies for Sourcing Products from the World's Largest B2B Marketplace. Their most recent book, which Deb co-authored with John Lawson, Kick Ass Social Commerce for E-preneurs: It's Not About Likes—It's About Sales, was recently named the 2015 Small Business Book of the Year in the social media category.

For further information, visit Brad and Deb's website, bradanddeb.com.

Opinions expressed here may not be shared by Auctiva Corp. and/or its principals.

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