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Tuesday
Oct092007

A conversation with Laura Stack, the Productivity Pro

As I announced last week [1], I'll be interviewing the top experts in the field of personal productivity, and I'm pleased to start out with a bang - I had the pleasure of talking with Laura Stack, AKA the Productivity Pro, last week.

Laura (site, blog), a very well known expert in productivity, has created a highly recognized brand, is a top rated speaker, and is the author of Leave the Office Earlier, Find More Time, and and her forthcoming The Exhaustion Cure: Up Your Energy from Low to Go in 21 Days (available May, 2008).

We talked about her business, productivity, her love of speaking, and her thoughts on starting a new practice. I hope you enjoy it!


Who to say your biggest influences were or your models, and why?

Probably Covey. I started off years ago studying Franklin Covey, of course back then it was Franklin Quest, started off with a Franklin Quest planner, but had done a lot of reading of Stephen Covey's, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, etc, and have had a Franklin Covey Planner for years, now I use Day-Timer, so I've done some shifting over the years. Early influences were the Priority Manager seminars that were popular back in 80s, when I first started the study in this seriously.


Are you using a Paper Planner still?

I use a Paper Planner and a handheld; I am a hybrid organizer. I find the handheld extremely ineffective as a tool to capture notes and ideas, so I do still use a Day-Timer.


Who do you say your peers are?

David Allen, Julie Morgenstern. There are a few people out there who do what I do; I consider myself a professional speaker. There are people who are organizers, people who are productivity consultants, who go in and do more organizational work, people who are, such as yourself doing blogging. I have always been a speaker, started off as a speaker. So, my main emphasis is getting the message out via the spoken word. I speak about a hundred times a year, half of them corporate work and half conferences doing keynotes, breakout sessions, etc. So, I am a speaker first and an author second.


Do you still do the one-on-one coaching and consulting?

I don't do that myself, our company offers it. I offer that through other contract organizers who teach like the Paper Tiger method, who are certified in some of those others. I do it occasionally, unfortunately I am usually too expensive, I don't charge differently to do one-on-one organizing as I would for a group of a thousand in a conference, I charge for my time and my fees don't vary. So, typically an organization cannot afford to bring me in to do one-on-one work. I have still done that on occasion, I just was hired to do that for an exec at Sunoco, for example, it just depends how much is being paid and whether they have the authority to come in and have me sit by them and hold their hand.


How much do you charge?

I charge for 90 minutes $7,500, I charge $10,000 for half-a-day and I charge $12,500 for a day.


How you get clients?

I don't have to go get clients anymore.


How did you get clients when were getting started?

Oh, when I started in '92 (my book didn't come out until 2004), I just like anybody had to build the momentum in my company. I did a lot of free speaking, I spoke pretty much to whomever would listen to me, wherever they had a speech, so I did a lot of looking in the business journal, looking in the calendar section in the back and see who is having meetings, local chapters of the national associations. I would call that person and say I am a speaker and do an hour lunch there, and it was a very slow process, it's took me couple of years really to get some momentum to start getting some spin-off business, some little bit of repeat, giving some referrals, it like was anything. Marketing is the thing that really takes the time for you to get going, but I did a lot of rotary and clubs, Lion club and I just collected coffee mugs, or free lunch, $50 if they gave me that.

I just tell people, if you want to speak, speak. There are so many people are like, "Oh! I can't go and do free speeches." I did free speeches for years and I think you have to, you've got a practice, you've got to hone your craft. You've got to get out there. I also joined Career Track (?) for a few years just to get the platform time, the knowledge, the experience of the meetings, industry, to interact with audiences of various sizes and setups and to really feel comfortable on the platform. So I paid my dues working for them for a few years, and that helped as well. I did some adjunct teaching at the University of Colorado, taught some classes.

You've just got to speak, you've got to look for any opportunity to get out there and the clients will not come until you already have a pretty nice listing of folks that you have worked with before and then they say, "Okay, now I am comfortable hiring this person," people don't want to hire someone new right off then.


Do you work to keep your material fresh?

I'm just like anybody else - keep up with reading and research and blogs, and I interview all my clients. There is a lot of preparation that goes into every speech that I do. Everyone is tailored, its custom, it's their issues and situations and stories. But being perceived as an expert helps in the way that I don't have to be out there constantly looking for what others are doing, I don't really care actually what others are doing. I create my own and have my own plans, perceptions, ideas and so now I can -- when immediate calls and interviews, I can answer any question.

I don't worry about, oh, I don't have an answer for that, I always do have an answer, but I still have to work at staying fresh, and cutting edge and innovative and keep up with friends, just like anybody would. You can't ever think that you've got into the point where you know it all and that you can't learn anything and you don't have to change your material, it does get old, you can get stagnant within a year or so. Everything is always just been changing, moving. But I don't read other people's work, I never even read David Allen's Getting Things Done.


Do you worry about competition?

I do my own thing, I don't want to be influenced by others' thinking, I have my own way of thinking. I don't feel like I compete. A lot of people think, oh, I am competing with so and so. Everyone just has a little bit of a different way of doing it and fortunately there is so much business out there, I don't feel like I have to compete with anybody. I know they feel the same way. I call it'd an abundance mentality - there is so much out there that I don't worry about what anybody else is doing. I just do my own thing and it's a quite comfortable existence.


How did your book Leave the Office Earlier come about?

That work was kind of the combination of my life's work at that point. I had some self-publishing, but that was the first time that a big house publisher was interested in my work. I had been writing a newsletter every month since 1999, I just finished 100th edition of that.

I got into a discipline of writing early on, making myself write articles, getting into newspapers, business journals, magazines, etc. I would put the articles out there, just to get into the regimen of writing, the discipline of writing, and that was kind of a collection that was prepackaged - just you have to change the writing, the tone and make it all cohesive. But my study of productivity has always been much broader than others'. I was doing productivity before productivity wasn't even a topic.

So, that's where the book came about - over ten years of work and writing by then it all came together. So, I put it in ten chapters, used the word "PRODUCTIVE," with every chapter starting with the letter of that word [2]. I came up with a fun way to say it, and that's really what the publisher was interested in. It was the creativity that I brought to the quiz, and coming up with the word PRODUCTIVE in the ten chapters. But that was the hardest part of the book - I was figuring out how to make the ten chapters fit the word "PRODUCTIVE."

When I finally came up with what I thought the ten competencies of productivity were, that was a real breakthrough in terms of getting the order of the book and getting it finally written. But it was a real kind of rehash of everything I had written for the past 12 years.

Get started (your blogging is great), that's a great discipline, just to force you to think, to write, to comment, to read, to dig. That daily discipline will go far and eventually pull that all together.


What are some of the biggest factors in your success?

Well, obviously I am good. I am good on the platform, I mean that is one of the biggest one. If you want to be a speaker, there are so many ways to do this business. You can be a productivity expert, but have various ways that that manifest itself in business. So, honing and practicing - that for me was my biggest marketing tool.

Content is important - being different, innovative, and more creative, but clients really were hiring me. So it was developing relationships. I take my clients to lunch, I take time to send them gifts, books to think of them, to write them, and I would call. There was a lot of phone time in the early days, a lot of -- and of course being a productive person as I am. I was very regimented and was making 20, 30, 40 calls a day and keep a database and everyday would open it up and I would make the calls that were scheduled and it was just not a negotiable type of thing. So, there was a lot of butts in the seat, I had sat on hard work in those few first years.

So I would say just getting really good on the platform, staying in touch, building those relationships, paying your dues, spending that phone time - connecting with people and writing and staying on top of your craft and really getting out there. You can be the best speaker in the world and I was good, but if you don't do well at marketing, you will fail, that is probably the biggest factor in my success was that I did pay my dues early until it started being able to take care of itself with enough repeat business and I'd go speak somewhere and get five more, and go speak somewhere and get six more.

It was always a lot of a critical mass actually that built. Then I didn't have to do that anymore. I don't ever make phone calls anymore, but it took many years probably when my first book hit, that's when I knew I had really gotten that critical mass was, when someone else finally acknowledged I was an expert.


How long did that take before critical mass hit?

Oh, let's say 10-12 years. It's just been in the last five years that I have enjoyed this kind of freedom, but first ten years in building a business is very hard, it's a lot of work, hard work, but once you get it started and you can make it pass the first five years of business, which is when most people tank, then you're pretty good to go.

I'd say after seven years, I was pretty solid, when you make your first $100,000 and then after that it takes off, but the first $100,000 was hard work. It came by my bootstraps and once I finally started making some money then you can hire some people and then you are not sitting on the floor at midnight, putting together mailings and press kits and making copies. I have four people now, and every time I add someone else it just takes my business to another level, but I've got at a point where I don't want to grow anymore.


What's your short definition of Productive?

Productivity is very easy, it's just output per hour per worker, that's how I look at it, output per hour per worker, meaning you could have one person that works eight hours and another person that works 12 hours and the eight hour-a-day person can be more productive than 12 hour-a-day person. So, I don't look at inputs, how many hours you are on your seat, how many things you've got done, for me it's all about results produced in terms of value and impact in worth and wage. It doesn't matter if you've got 20 things done; I'd rather have you get one thing done, if that had the more importance. So, it's all about -- for me it's the value that's created with all of your work.


How do you do as much as possible to make sure clients "get it?"

I don't worry about it. I don't look at that as my job. I do the best job that I can and some people who I am sure don't get it, but I don't do follow-up types of things, I just don't have the time and most of my clients don't have the budget. I have had people occasionally, we do pre-work and then we'll do a seminar and then we'll do some post-work and I have all of these assessments, they want to do that, but I charge extra for that follow-up.

So, typically, I am not saying that I can't do it, or won't it, typically they just choose not to and I look at it as my job to make my client happy and if they want me to come in and do a one-day seminar and go away and never come back, then, that's what they are paying me to do. And I do the very-best job that I can, but I don't look at it as my responsibility to make sure that the information sticks. I try to do as much as I can, of course as a class, in terms of a behavior and we create action plans and they have an accountability partner and someone they work with after the class. So, there are some limited things you can do, but ultimately it isn't my responsibility that they want to pay me to come in on a one-year retainer and do some consulting and follow-up.

There are many who are more consultants, but I am not a consultant, I am speaker. They want me to come in for one hour, give them three tips, a little entertainment, make them laugh and make them think and I go home, and I did a good job. That's what I am paid to do.


Could you give one suggestion to my readers on improving productivity?

Well, there is so much clutter, I think, first they have to get focused and figure out what are the things that are keeping me from doing what I know I should be doing. If they are distracted all the time and can't concentrate, maybe they need to look at some attention management types of things. If they are busy and always in meetings and never have a free moment, they should look at some availability kind of management. If they can't find things and they're spending 30 minutes a day looking for stuff and they need some accessibility management. So, I mean there is no one answer for every person, that's why I address these in "Leave the Office."


What haven't I asked you that you have a good answer for?

Oh my God! That will take me eight hours to answer that question.

I think that your service is very effective because you are trying to be a cohesive kind of unifying voice out there and you are showing a lot of different perspectives and systems and tools. I think this service is important, it's valuable - "Hey, come to Matt Cornell's site and he'll summarize it out for you." You do the work so that others don't have to go out and find all these separate little independent pieces of productivity.

I think you are doing a nice job and I am happy that you are aware of my work and thank you for your interest.


References

Reader Comments (20)

Very educational interview for someone like me who is still building his business. Boy, she worked really hard, 20 - 40 calls per day. Damn! I gotta work a lot harder. - Jon

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJon Pappas

Jon - I felt the same way. One part awe, one part - Damn! :-) Thanks for reading.

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Man, who do people like these think they are? $10,000 for half a day... I could work a week with that salary and live very well for more than a year.

Sure, it's really hard work and it's taken awhile to get there. And if other people with big pockets pay for it...

But I just couldn't let myself charge that much whatever I did for other people...

Still, very interesting article indeed. And an excellent blog!

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi, Anonymous.

Man, who do people like these think they are? $10,000 for half a day... I could work a week with that salary and live very well for more than a year.

I hear you, and I have an answer to your question. As you may know, I practice [ Value-Based Fees | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0787955116?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0787955116 ], which is based on value as perceived by the client. Laura is a top name, and I guarantee there are people out there who want her expertise and are very happy to pay for it. That said, she admitted that her fee is way beyond most people, which she said she's fine with; she likes what she does now. She said they're buying Laura Stack, and there's only one. I'm sure (and I hope to find out) that Julie Morgenstern, David Allen, et. al. are in the same category. But they're not being hired by small businesses...

But I just couldn't let myself charge that much whatever I did for other people...

Not sure I understand - Are you saying you don't think it's a fair fee? I think the goal is a win-win, and within those bounds, I'm personally fine getting paid relatively high. As long as my clients feel they're getting great value, I'd ask "What's the problem?"

Still, very interesting article indeed. And an excellent blog!

Much appreciated. Thanks a ton for the great comment and questions. I love it when my readers push on this stuff.

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, I'm curious why you deleted the post that was there for a couple hours. That's your right, of course, but the comments were certainly a 'push' which is what you said you loved.

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Give Matt a break, dude. He's just doing his best to make a buck in what Chris Anderson, among others, calls "The Long Tail."

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi Anonymous.

Matt, I'm curious why you deleted the post that was there for a couple hours. ... comments were certainly a 'push' which is what you said you loved.

I've included the comment below. I deleted it because it was sarcastic and didn't contribute to the conversation in a way I'm OK with. My call: It crossed the line from controversial to insulting. The commenter is welcome to make the point in a more civilized way.

And James Joyce is my peer. Oh, but wait, I'm an unpublished frycook at McDonalds. I guess she's aiming high. Good thing the David Allen/GTD coattails are long and wide, so that Laura, and Matt for that matter, can ride along.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Give Matt a break, dude. He's just doing his best to make a buck in what Chris Anderson, among others, calls "The Long Tail." Thank you. My goal is to help overloaded people by sharing something that's really improved my life. To make this happen I need to be compensated, just as in any fair exchange.

I'm comfortable with my motivation. I came into this by accident (Wow - what the heck's going on?), then study (Is there something significant behind this?), then a realization that I needed to get the word out (I can't believe we aren't taught this!) In my case that meant quitting my stable job and taking a big risk on something with no guarantees of success.

Re: [ The Long Tail | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Long_Tail ], I hadn't thought about where I am (or want to be) on it. Thanks for the idea.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I apologize to Matt, Laura, and your readers. As Matt says, my comment was sarcastic. I wasn't at my best when I let fly that flame, and I made the mistake of writing without compassion. I'm grateful for Matt's courage, and for his redirection of the conversation. He was more kind to me than I deserved after that comment.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey, Anonymous - thanks very much. No hard feelings; I've done the same thing myself.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,

Very informative interview with some good "behind the scenes information." I am eagerly awaiting this series of interviews and perhaps gaining some insight in the process. As always, keep up the good work, and continued success on the "journey".

Regards,
Davey

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Excellent information. I found it interesting that Laura didn't even read David Allen's book. It really points to the individual nature of productivity. The beauty of teaching others is learning about yourself.

As I was creating [ The Bubble Planner | http://www.bubbleplanner.com ], the ideas from others unlocked the potential that was already stored inside of me. While we have common traits, we are on our own individual journey.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterUnleash Your Potential

Davey: Much appreciated. I'm looking forward to bringing other big names to you.

Bill: Wow; great insights. The beauty of teaching others is learning about yourself. and the ideas from others unlocked the potential that was already stored inside of me. Well put. Also, I admire your creation; ideation is great, but execution is in some ways the hardest part. Good inspiration for me.

Thanks to both of you for reading!

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Inspirational, both that you're doing these interviews and also the dedication and long years that Morgenstern took to get where she is today. Thanks.

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Steig

oops. Meant Stack not Morgenstern

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Steig

Thank you, Joseph. And I'm hoping to interview Julie Morgenstern too, if she's willing.

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'm the first of the "anonymous" posters who wrote about the fees. Thanks Matt for your response!

Yes, I understand the idea of value-based fees, that as long as people are willing to pay for it there's business.

I think my comment was more about the morality of it, although it could be a sensitive debate to discuss the morality of how much people can charge for something that others are willing to pay for...

And by that I don't mean it's unfair to the clients. If they think it's worth it there's nothing wrong with charging what they think it's worth, not at all.

It's more on a higher level of what life is all about. As someone else points out, productivity (as most other business really) is individual in nature. "If I gain from what others think is fair, fine." But when does it cross the line from what contributes to a better society for the people living in it? And in the end therefore also for me as an individual in that society.

I don't see productivity as an end in itself (getting anything done), but as a means to be able to get good things done.

Sure I want to live a good life and be able to appreciate the good things in life (who doesn't?). But I think there's a line where my individuality counteracts itself as I don't want to live in a society where everyone only think about themselves. Then I can have all the money in the world, but still not be able to live a good life, in the real sense of the word.

Hmm, not sure I get the idea across and if it makes sense. But the point I tried to make in the first post was that:

1) my conscience wouldn't let me charge that much because I simply don't think that there's anything I could do for others that are worth that much in terms of money. If you think you have that much to pay for my services, use it for those who need it better than I do. Or else we keep the ball rolling in a direction I don't want this world to go...

2) I wouldn't take any job only because a client would pay me for it. Sure, I think Laura Stack can choose to reject any client she doesn't want to work for. And I really don't want this to be about Laura, because I don't know anything about her. My thoughts are on a more general level. But do I want to help others with their productivity because I want to gain from it myself? Or do I want to help them, because I want to help THEM? A combination of course, but something I personally think a lot about.

I hope this comment doesn't make me sound like a morality police or a naïve "world improver", it's really just as much for my own reflection and knowledge about myself, as we all are on our own individual journey, for sure.

But I'll end here and see if it's generated any insight. My first post was just an emotional response to what I thought was a reckless amount of money in a world where that is more than what most people ever see in their entire life... We live in a global world with a responsibility as human beings to care for our common future. :)

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Hi Daniel. Wow, heck of a comment - thank you. Let me see if I can do justice to your points.

It's more on a higher level of what life is all about. ... when does it cross the line from what contributes to a better society for the people living in it? And in the end therefore also for me as an individual in that society. That is an excellent question. I've thought about this since starting my practice, and came up with two questions for my work: "Am I actually producing something that's ultimately good for the world?" And: "Who would I *like* to help get more productive?" For the first, I consider myself an educator, and therefore an enabler of others. Is this honorable? Absolutely! I value teaching and education very, very highly - that's why I worked so long at a university, and why I work with faculty and staff from academic institutions.

For my second question, I'm still working it out. I do pro bono work for non-profits (I just charge expenses), but that has its own issues around accountability. Plus, people take my work much more seriously when they're plunking down cash. Also, who do I choose to work with? As I said, I love working with scientific and educational organizations, but the work is general, and I do like helping a variety of people - different jobs are really interesting!

And finally, I need to make a living at this, or I can't help anyone. But both parties must feel it a fair trade. Actually, I'm working on my clients coming away thinking "BOY did I get a deal!" :-)

Sure I want to live a good life and be able to appreciate the good things in life (who doesn't?). But I think there's a line where my individuality counteracts itself as I don't want to live in a society where everyone only think about themselves. Then I can have all the money in the world, but still not be able to live a good life, in the real sense of the word. I completely agree - there's a balance, and it's important to me too. I look at my work as helping people, which I'm happy with. And there's helping on the home front, which I need to do more on. Volunteering, for example.

... the point I tried to make in the first post was that: 1) my conscience wouldn't let me charge that much because I simply don't think that there's anything I could do for others that are worth that much in terms of money. If you think you have that much to pay for my services, use it for those who need it better than I do. Or else we keep the ball rolling in a direction I don't want this world to go... Interesting... So there's an absolute limit to how valuable you think your work is? I believe it's relative. For example, how much I spend on a home may be very different from what you'd spend. Or a dinner. Or a car. But those are things. I think you're also getting at how I spend my very precious time. (I have an exact # of minutes left to me, and I can't create more - though I don't know the actual # :-)

So I don't think I'm in a position to judge my worth from anyone else's perspective. It's up to them, and it varies. Was I worth $40/hr (say) programming? Should I reduce it for others?

2) I wouldn't take any job only because a client would pay me for it. ... But do I want to help others with their productivity because I want to gain from it myself? Or do I want to help them, because I want to help THEM? A combination of course, but something I personally think a lot about. Again, excellent question. I'd be curious to hear what your work is, but only if you're comfortable sharing. In private would be fine.

I hope this comment doesn't make me sound like a morality police or a naïve "world improver", it's really just as much for my own reflection and knowledge about myself, as we all are on our own individual journey, for sure. No, it's absolutely a big important issue. It's why I value you and all my readers, and why I welcome comments.

My first post was just an emotional response to what I thought was a reckless amount of money in a world where that is more than what most people ever see in their entire life... We live in a global world with a responsibility as human beings to care for our common future. :) I think I understand. I often look at my government's spending, and feel terrible (and helpless) about it. Or I think about multi-billionaires and how they spend their money (not that it's my business). Actually, a central point is that it *is* our business, ultimately. In this country we think very individually, but we sometimes forget that what really matters is shared by everyone, and everything ultimately comes from the planet. (Sorry if this is soapboxy.)

You've given me a lot to think about, Daniel, and I am humbly grateful. You're questions go to the root of why we do what we do, and why we work to be more productive. Much obliged!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,

In response to Daniel's post which was very thought-out and justified, I believe it boils down to supply and demand.

As a speaker, consultant, musician, entertainer becomes more "in-demand" the value of their fees has to rise. In consulting and speaking you must move on something daily that leads toward a paying customer. Your survival demands it.

As time passes and you become more "in-demand" your time becomes more expensive. All time presents an opportunity cost problem. If you are doing one thing, then you are not doing something else. So the speaker or consultant must value their time in relationship to what they are not doing. For example, do I want Matt Cornell presenting his program, or do I want someone else presenting Matt's program. I'll pay more for Matt to present his program than I would for Matt's "hired gun" to present.

Value based fees are dependent on uniqueness. Matt Cornell is unique and you pay based on how that uniqueness plugs into whatever value you believe will be derived from your people being exposed to that uniqueness. (Did that make sense?)

I use value fees because it is the only equitable way to "invest" your time in the resolution of a client problem. That problem has a long-term cost associated with it. If my short-term value fee eliminates or dramatically reduces that cost, then the $25,000 plus reasonable expenses provides tremendous value to the client. I don't look at fees in a vacuum since the outcome should produce a long-term benefit that can be amortized over a longer term.

Hope this helps: just my opinion, but Daniel did pose some interesting thoughts.

As always...continued success in the "Journey".

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Davey, as usual an excellent comment. Makes complete sense to me, and I agree with it.

P.S. I love economic terms like [ Opportunity cost | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunity_cost ] and [ Sunk cost | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunk_costs ] - thanks for the reminder.

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
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