December 18, 2018 - Episode 15

Every Business Should Have a Board of Advisors with Howard Task

It can be hard to find good advice as an entrepreneur. Asking friends and family doesn’t always get you the honest feedback your business needs. That’s why we’re joined today by Howard Task from Howard Task Marketing Management and Advisory Services. He has over 40 years experience in both marketing and business. Howard recommends that private small companies have a board of advisors to act as a pseudo board of directors. He explains how these trusted professionals can help small businesses be more successful. Howard also tells us how to get started with a board of advisors and what to expect.


Episode Transcript

Jake Braun:
Hello everyone. Welcome to Kickin' it with Kapok, a podcast about business owners, marketing struggles and solutions and other business related topics. I'm Jake.
Mirela Setkic:
And I'm Mirela.
Jake Braun:
And this is episode 15, "Every Business Should Have a Board of Advisors with Howard Task." Today we'll be joined by Howard task who is the president of Howard Task Marketing Management and Advisory Services. Howard also serves on several board of directors including Stanley Steamer and Guardian Water and Power. He also has 40 plus years of marketing experience. First as a successful boutique marketing agency, then as a C-suite executive for two major retailers, and for the last 30 years sharing his business and marketing knowledge with businesses and advising entrepreneurs who need help with areas of business they don't specialize in. In short, Howard likes to describe himself as an advisor to the owners of family owned businesses and a professional board member. Why don't you take it from here Mirela?
Mirela Setkic:
All right. Well Howard and I kind of go a little bit back, and we didn't actually know this until recently, a couple of weeks ago. We were having a telephone conversation, and we knew that we had Dale Baker in common who was a previous guest of one of our podcasts, and we realized that Howard and I actually met in either 2005 or 2006 when he came down to visit his mom who was at the time married to Dale's grandfather, Stanley. So I guess we have sort of known each other for a long time, but we didn't know that until a couple weeks ago. And so that's my connection to Howard, and is there anything else that you would like to add about yourself, Howard?
Howard Task:
No, not really. Other than back in those days, I used to come down to St. Pete and we used to sit out on the ocean, actually on the bay, I think it was Boca Ciega Bay. I used to sit with Dale's grandfather, he'd smoke a cigar and we'd talk business till the wee hours of the morning. So while I wasn't on Stanley's company's board at the time, and subsequently did join it, but I have a lot of memories, Mirela of those years down there.
Mirela Setkic:
Yeah, I definitely remember that he loved his cigars. As soon as he woke up he would come to the office and he would have a cigar, and then he would sometimes even try to smoke inside the office, which was against the office rules, but he didn't really care.
Howard Task:
Like most entrepreneurs, he liked to break the rules.
Mirela Setkic:
He definitely like to break the rules. So I definitely remember that. So I guess we should just switch over a little bit and talk about marketing and what kind of role marketing has played in your professional life, if you can tell us a little bit about that.
Howard Task:
So I always wanted to be in marketing Mirela, and I went to the Ohio State University. I moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1970, and I was not very good at math. I'm much more of a right brain person, so I had to join the journalism school because I couldn't pass the math classes and that's how you got into marketing. So I was very fortunate though to be taking a class where a gentleman came in to speak to us, and I got to meet him before class and after class they invited me to go out and have a beer with them, and it turned out this gentleman owned a advertising agency that was really just starting out. The guy was a super salesman and a fantastic marketer, and as a result of that, we got to work with many emerging brands, brands that a lot of your listeners would probably know. One of them was a company called the Limited Stores which is now known as L Brands, which is the holding company of Victoria Secret Bath And Body Works.
But back in those days they were very big into fashion retailing, and they had about 45 stores at that time and we worked with them to help them grow that company. We worked with a company called City National Bank, which was the first company in the United States to have a ATM card. They were also I think the first company to have a drive thru window. They were very innovative, but City National Bank actually went on to become Bank One which subsequently was sold to Chase, so they were a pioneer in the banking business. We worked with divisions of federated department stores where they were growing a discount chain similar to Target. We worked with the forefathers of the Gourmet hamburger, who was a gentleman by the name of Barry Zacks, who started Max & Erma's Restaurants.
So the bottom line was I worked with, in those days, family owned businesses, none of those companies were public at the time. Some of them subsequently became public, but always worked with them, and always worked with growing companies and that's sort of what my passion has always been.
Mirela Setkic:
Okay. Well, so you and marketing go way, way back. You and small family businesses or also big family businesses go all the way back, which is kind of interesting. The last time Jake and I talked to you over the phone we were just kind of running through different ideas that we could talk about on this podcast, and you brought up the idea of board of advisors. And at the moment, I was like, "I don't know. I don't know if I know anyone who is a small business and who has a board of advisors." So I was kind of intrigued by that idea. And so can you tell us what a board of advisors is? And is a business of any size a good candidate to have one? And what are some benefits of having one? And just kind of give us like short synopsis of what board of advisors is.
Howard Task:
Sure. So a board of advisors essentially is a non legal, let's call them a pseudo board of directors. And a company would choose people who are experienced board members, and I'll talk about that in a minute from various disciplines of the business, and these people are typically trained to be objective. So what you get is a sounding board of very experienced people, and the advantage of that is number one, you're going to get objectivity, because when you're growing a business it's very easy to do what you think is best, and maybe what you think is best in fact may not be the best thing for the product, may not be the best thing for the marketplace. And oftentimes it is, but it's nice to bounce your ideas off somebody who has "been there." People who have introduced new products, people who have put together financing packages, people who have put in major ERP computer systems, people who understand finance and marketing people and operations people.
Because pretty much, even the new most innovative idea, something similar to it has been done before, and people have learned from that experience. So oftentimes, it's expensive and it's difficult, especially when a business is growing to hire major talent. And so if you choose some experienced business people who are objective, who have no tie to you from a business standpoint, because what happens is a lot of people will choose their accountant or their lawyer to be on their board, when in fact they have a business relationship with them. What you want on your board are successful people who have no vested interest in how your business does, so that their only interest is your success, your well-being and the management of the family asset.
So most entrepreneurs at the end of the day are very lonely, because everybody kind of wants a piece of what they're doing or they want to do business with them, and they have a vested interest. By surrounding yourself with some objective people who can give you an objective viewpoint of what you're doing and how to spend your money and how to go to market, you reduce some of the risk that entrepreneurs often have to go through when they're starting a business or growing a business.
Mirela Setkic:
That's true. Sometimes it's very expensive to make mistakes, and sometimes you end up making stupid mistakes but I guess they're not really stupid because you didn't know better to do better.
Jake Braun:
You don't know what you don't know.
Howard Task:
Yeah, I always say that Jake. I always say, "You don't know what you don't know and it's nice to be with people." The beauty of a board of advisors is that's what they are, they're advisers. You don't have to do what they say. You have no legal obligation to them, but what you can do is your due diligence so that before you make a move your odds of being successful are greatly increased.
Mirela Setkic:
That's very true. And so is a business of any size a good candidate to have a board of advisors? Is there a business that is maybe too small or too big or is there like a sweet spot for a business of certain size?
Howard Task:
You probably need to be in the, I'd say maybe two, most likely three to four million dollars before you're going to do it, because you've got a real business. It's ideal for somebody who's looking to scale their business or to grow their business. If you're a smaller business but you're looking to become a national player and you want to do that as quickly as possible, then even though you may have a low sales volume it's worth it, because you get really three advantages from having a board of advisors. One is you're gonna get an objective viewpoint. Two is because if you choose the right board, all of a sudden the people that you're working with have access to tremendous resources.
So whether that be an introduction to a bank or a finance company that could play a role, if it's a multi-unit business maybe it's working with real estate people, maybe it's working with marketing people, maybe you're working with a tiny accounting firm right now but you're going to be going into multiple states and you're going to be filing tax returns in multiple states, and you need to know how to do that. They'll typically have resources to help you do that, and have experienced and been there a million times, and instead of going out and kind of hunting and pecking like you might do on a typewriter, you can get into this pretty quickly and they can give you three or four resources and right off the bat you'll have some people that know what they're doing. In addition, your board most likely as you're interviewing those resources can participate with you and help you evaluate the proposals.
So you got objectivity, you've got access to resources, and then the third thing is you kind of have to have a little bit of accountability. You want to have deadlines, you want to be held accountable from a budget standpoint, and you want to have a plan. And so if you're having a quarterly board meeting with the board of advisors you've got to report back on your progress, so it brings a little bit of discipline to your business too. So when you say what size company you should be, it really ties to what your vision is. If you really want to grow something and you want something scalable and you want to make a difference with your business, then you got to start from the beginning and you've got a plan you've got to surround yourself with good resources and you've got to hold yourself accountable.
Mirela Setkic:
That makes a lot of sense. I guess the connections alone are super valuable. If you're just starting out and you're just a small player, it's a lot more difficult to actually get on the phone with someone but if you know someone who knows that person that can make that introduction, that can make a world of difference and that's huge.
Howard Task:
So most entrepreneurs Mirela, when they start out they have their hands on everything. I always use the analogy of the old plate spinners that you used to see on TV, and they put these plates up and they'd run. They might have 10 plates, and they'd be spinning them and they'd run back and forth as one starts to wobble then they run to the one that is gonna fall off and that's how most entrepreneurs are running their business. They're moving from one thing that needs to be fixed or worked on to the next thing, and if you have yourself surrounded with talent then all your plates are always spinning somehow evenly, and that gives you time to really work on growing your business. So I think that's an interesting way to think of it, because most entrepreneurs are constantly putting out fires.
Mirela Setkic:
Yes, and at the end of the day you sit down and you start reflecting and thinking, "Well, what did I accomplish today?" And sometimes it's nothing. I just pretty much put a whole bunch of fires out and but I can't really tell people that I've been putting fires out all day long.
Howard Task:
And going back to that point, in the beginning you think you have to do everything yourself, when in fact there are resources out there that A, have already been there so they can help you avoid mistakes. You can be a lot faster and it keeps your business running smoother, so you really don't have to do everything yourself. The gentleman that ran the agency when I first started out in business used to say you're only as good as your resources, and I've always believed that. I think that it's wise for an entrepreneur to surround themselves with experienced people. And the other thing is they get access and it cost significantly less than it would to have that type of talent on payroll. When it comes time to hire those people usually your board can help you source that type of talent or at least help you with the interview process to make sure you get the right person.
Mirela Setkic:
That's very true, and honestly up until we had this conversation with you a couple of weeks ago, I never even thought about this. As a small business owner it just never even crossed my mind. It's interesting how many things are out there and like you said, "You don't know what you don't know."
Howard Task:
Once I fell into it and I've seen how it's helped companies, it's really a tremendous value and it's something that people a lot of time they don't think about it especially when they're first starting out.
Jake Braun:
It seems like an interesting idea if your company has decided that this is something they're interested in and they're ready to give it a shot, how do they go about finding the advisers to be on this board?
Howard Task:
Well the first thing you want to do is you want to think about the disciplines that you could use the most amount of help in. Typically, most businesses and most of the boards I serve on will always have someone with a great financial background. You'll usually have someone, if it's a manufacturing business, with a good production background. It's always great to have a marketing person more so than a sales person, because you're really looking for strategic thinkers on your board, not that salespeople don't strategically think, I want to make sure that I make that clear, but marketing people are more talking about the whole strategy of the business, and marketing from my perspective can be so many things. I mean it can be a unique distribution system that just lets you get to market faster. So you want strategy thinkers, so you need a finance person, you need an operations person or a production person.
Today logistics and distribution is critical, again depending on what type of business you have. And also the other piece that's critical in a lot of businesses today is IT, because you've got to have great systems. Ultimately, what makes businesses great and scalable is great systems and processes, and the more that you can bring to your business through using outside resources I think the better off your business will be.
Jake Braun:
Okay, and how do you tell if you've found someone who's a good match or bad? Should you be looking at their resume or looking up for people they've worked with before?
Howard Task:
So that's a good question Jake because everybody wants to be in boards and everybody thinks they'll be a good board member, and the gentleman who actually put me in this business was chairman of the School of Finance at Ohio State and was a professional board member. One of the things he told me at the time was, "Everybody tells me they want their kids to be on boards or they want to be on boards and not everybody can do it, and I think you have the ability to do it." So one thing is you have to be objective. Number two, you have to understand things both from a conceptual standpoint and also from an operation standpoint.
One of the things that he told me as a professor, which he was, he was an academic and he talked in terms of theory, and the reason that he thought I was a great addition was I understood concept but I had been on the firing line and I had worked in actual businesses, because theory and actual are two different things and if we could marry them together we'd give our clients the best possible advice. So you really want people who are experienced board members, that doesn't mean that they didn't run a ... You'll get a lot of people that say, "Well this guy built a great company and I'm going to put him on my board." Well a lot of times that guy may focus all of the stuff that he wants you to do to what he did, and that may not be the best thing for you. So you want somebody who is a proven board member that has worked on a number of boards, and I think you can get that off either a resume or there's probably some business groups in town.
There's like the Young Presidents Organization in a lot of communities. There's a company called Vistage that does advice. There's a company called the Executive Organization I believe, and a lot of times those people will know people that are serving on boards, so by going to a president of one of those companies. If they know people who own companies that have boards, good to ask them. You might ask your accountant and your lawyer for people they know who are good board members, but they're not necessarily the person that should be their board member but their recommendations might be great. If there's a business school in the neighborhood, you might call the business school and find out. A lot of times they'll have academics serving on boards, which is a good thing but they'll also know who other good board members are.
Mirela Setkic:
That's a good point. Actually I think here in Pinellas County, the county where we live in, there is a non profit that their name is SCORE, which is a abbreviation for something else. And I think it's just a group of ex-business executives who are in retirement now and they actually help local businesses with getting their business off the ground and they probably would be good candidates for some of these boards because-
Howard Task:
They'd be interesting. Those people I think are more tactical. It's like, "I need help with accounting. I need someone to come in and work with me." But they may know people. I think they'd be a great resource, I don't in any way mean to minimize that, but I think what they'll do is they'll come in or they'll advise you on how to execute something, which is equally as important. A board person, the biggest thing is that, and it's difficult, is to find people who are objective, because it's what's best for the clients business that we're focused on. And I believe these people are very, very lonely. I always say their friends lie to them, all the people that they're talking to, because they want to brag about their business, they want to position themselves well and everybody wants to be thought of well.
And I don't mean that negatively, but you've got to find somebody who is going to be truly objective. It's not about what they want to do or they think you should do with your business, it's like what's the best thing. Let's learn your business, let's understand what you're doing and then let's apply my skill set to that to figure out how to make you be successful. That's a hard thing to do. A lot of people think they can do that but that is a hard thing to do.
Jake Braun:
I would assume there has to be some element of trust to it too because as the business owner you've got to be willing to share all of the details of your business with this person too, give them the cold hard truth of what's going on.
Howard Task:
These people are your true confidant. I don't market my business but I get called all the time and somebody said, "Well, am I going to have to give you financials?" You can't. I mean that's like the craziest question of all, of course you have to give financials. I mean you bare your soul. It's like a computer. If that entrepreneur isn't willing to share and isn't willing to be open, if you put bad input in your gonna get bad output out. So this is a very intimate thing and that's why again who you pick is so important because the objectivity is critical. So if you pick your account or you pick some friend of yours, they're gonna watch out for you but they may not be the best person. You want somebody with a great business background, with a proven success as a board member, not just proven success as a business person.
Jake Braun:
I assume this is also a situation where like most things it's you get what you pay for, is comprising or putting together a board like this an expensive proposition for a business?
Howard Task:
Not really. I mean when you say that, I always think in terms of ROI. Today, I mean I charge a fair amount, in the beginning when I first started out it wasn't uncommon to even get under $1,000 for a board meeting. Today I probably won't take a board for less than $2,500 a quarter, but the return on that can be literally millions and millions of dollars. And again, that goes back to who should have a board. Now you can find board members, and especially in some markets you can probably find somebody for 750 to $1,000 who might be willing to do it, who might just be fine depending on what you're trying to do with your business. But if you're really serious about it and you really want to grow and you really want to get top talent, you are gonna have to pay a little bit for it. But if you do four board meetings a year, and it cost you $10,000, but you end up with a marketing plan that's going to take your company light years forward faster, then the money is well, well spent.
So I go back to the return. I also think about the cost of not having one, because what I've seen more of is people make huge mistakes that oftentimes can sink a business, and had they trusted some professionals who have already been there, they could have avoided that mistake. And I'll see a lot of dreams that don't come true, but more often than not I see dreams that do come true.
Jake Braun:
All right. Well I think this has been a lot of valuable information for small businesses out there. Is there anything else that we should have asked you about but we haven't yet?
Mirela Setkic:
Well maybe-
Howard Task:
Like you say, "You don't know what you don't know." But I will tell you this. I've probably worked with 60 companies intimately over the years, and I have companies that I've been with for over 30 years. The people, the companies that have boards, I've seen very few fail. Most of the ones that I've failed I've been asked to come in when they were already headed in a poor direction, but most of them are successful or they end up selling, and they do very well. It is truly every entrepreneur, even if they don't have a formal board, which is what I would advise, but even if they surround themselves with some very bright business people who only have their interests in mind, that is something every entrepreneur should do.
Jake Braun:
All right. Well if any of our listeners out there want to learn more about you or even hire you as a member of their board of advisors, how would they do that? Do you have a website or any other way that people might be able to reach out to you?
Howard Task:
Well I've got a Linkedin page. I really don't market. I always think as a marketer the best marketing is word of mouth-
Mirela Setkic:
That's right. That's the most powerful.
Howard Task:
... and if you can get people to call you without having to do any advertising you've really done a good job. Honestly, I made one sales call, not a sales call, but I've made one solicitation in all my years doing it. So I do have a LinkedIn page, and certainly if anybody wanted to get a hold of me they could contact you guys and you guys can feel free to give them my contact information.
Mirela Setkic:
Okay. We will definitely do that. And are you the only Howard Task on Linkedin or are there many Howard Tasks?
Howard Task:
No. I'm the one and only.
Mirela Setkic:
Okay. The one and only. So people can go on there and look for you and they'll find you, and obviously they can reach out to us and we will pass on your information.
Howard Task:
Absolutely.
Jake Braun:
Okay. That sounds good. I guess we want to thank you for joining us on the podcast today, I think you've given everyone a lot of great information.
Howard Task:
Well I hope it's beneficial for anyone that listens. I think that it is a small investment that gives a really huge return, best investment I think you can make.
Mirela Setkic:
I agree, and honestly this has been a big lesson for us as well. We didn't know a lot of this stuff either, so this has been very, very useful.
Jake Braun:
I agree with that too, and if the listeners agree as well or are just enjoying the podcast please subscribe and leave us a rating, a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. It really would mean the world to us. It helps us find new listeners, and we would just really appreciate it. And with that, I think it's been a great 15th episode. I'd like to again thank Howard from Howard Task Marketing Management and Advisory Services for joining us today. And feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions or comments about anything we talked about today or marketing in general you can visit us on our website, KickinItWithKapok.com, or on social media. We're on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as Kapok Marketing. This has been Kickin' it with Kapok, brought to you by Kapok Marketing.
Thanks for listening. We'll have something just as great for you next time.