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Positive Psychology and Revenue Acceleration, with Cliff McDonald


Cliff McDonald S2F Podcast Image

Cliff McDonald was an awesome guest on our recent episode of Stride to Freedom. He is a serial entrepreneur. He’s done so many things in his life, it’s hard to keep up!

From college athlete to Irish pub-owner to corporate America—Cliff has gained knowledge and experience in diverse industries. And all this has led to what he does today: accelerating revenue in companies by shifting the way sales are done.

Cliff is the founder and managing partner of Brainheart Growth They are consultants for mid-market companies on market strategy and revenue generation. They do this using positive psychology techniques and shifting the perception of sales from product-centric selling to problem-centric helping. Here are some takeaways from our conversation with Cliff on the Stride to Freedom podcast.

Positive Psychology & Sales

Coming from a background in professional sports, Cliff was used to being coached and mentored. But once entering the corporate world, he found this to be lacking. It sparked his interest in psychology and organizational behavior—how can we make the most out of people in the workplace?

Cliff pursued studies in positive psychology which is the scientific study of what goes right in life. How cool is that? Through positive psychology, Cliff and his team and Brainheart Growth can coach and mentor companies from a place of strengths rather than focusing on what’s lacking.

Positive psychology connects with sales in a few ways:

  • All sales teams have strengths that can be maximized; focusing on the strengths will be more effective than focusing on what’s going wrong.
  • Hiring should be done based on character strengths—what does each employee bring to the table?
  • Positive psychology shifts the mindset from “selling” to “helping.” At the end of the day, companies want to help people, not just shove products and services in their face.

How to Build Sales Teams

Cliff’s expertise is around building teams with heart. He collaborates with companies to evaluate where they’re at, and how they can create systems and processes to transform the way they do sales to boost revenue.

There are a few steps to building successful sales teams:

  • Start with a mindset shift: Sales is a learned skill that can be taught to employees who are willing to learn and grow.
  • Re-define the narrative: Sales is not about pushing products, but solving problems. It’s about helping customers and clients. With this mindset change, teams can focus on creating genuine sales strategies that pull people in instead of pushing them away.
  • Develop processes and a methodology on how to do sales, evaluate what’s working, training, and coaching. Don’t just wing it! Create and implement a thorough methodology that works.

Sales Misconceptions and Roadblocks

Cliff has worked with a ton of companies, so he’s heard all the misconceptions and myths when it comes to sales! Here’s a few that he shed light on:

  • Myth: Salespeople just exist. Reality: Sales is a learned skill that can be developed through a methodology and training.
  • Myth: Only the CEO or founder can sell the product well. Reality: Through systematic training, anyone can learn. Once you free up the founder to be a visionary leader again, your company can get to the next level!
  • Myth: There’s only one way to get leads. Reality: Thanks to the internet, there are tons of ways to get leads and procure clients. Try something new and see what works.
  • Myth: All salespeople are the same. Reality: Most salespeople are “farmers,” who manage existing relationships. Some are “hunters,” who bring in new clients—they’re different skillsets and you need both!

We learned a lot from Cliff McDonald in this interview. His care for people and drive to help businesses succeed is evident in how he speaks! Catch his entire interview on the Stride for Freedom podcast or check out his company Brainheart Growth to learn more about what he does.

The Stride for Freedom podcast is hosted by Stride Services. Contact us today to learn more about our back-office accounting and CFO services, including stable and efficient bookkeeping, cash flow management, and actionable analytics for growth.

You’ll enjoy this Podcast episode with Cliff

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We are fortunate to have Kate available to spend time with us on this edition of Stride 2 Freedom. If there is a speaker you’d like us to interview, click here and let us know. Stay well. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

Show Notes and Links From Episode:

Cliff McDonald: LinkedIn

Brainheart Growth: Website/LinkedIn

Cliff McDonald: cliff@brainheartgrowth.com

And if you want to know more about us at Stride Services, contact us today. We offer back-office accounting and CFO services, including stable and efficient bookkeeping, cash flow management, and actionable analytics for growth

Episode Transcript:

Russell Benaroya: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Stride 2 Freedom podcast where we help business leaders get and stay in their genius zone. My name is Russell Benaroya, and I am your podcast host.

You may be wondering, what is your genius zone? Well, your genius zone is that thing that you do where people say, “Oh my gosh, that’s your superpower.” Or you lose track of time, or if you could do it forever and not worry about getting paid, that’s what you want to keep doing because you’re exceptionally unique at what you do.

And if we can help people unlock their genius zone by bringing guests on the podcast to help you spend more time in it, that is success for us here at the Stride 2 Freedom podcast. The Stride 2 Freedom podcast is sponsored by Stride Services. Stride Services is an outsource back office, bookkeeping, accounting, and fractional CFO services firm, serving marketing agencies, outsourced IT managed service providers, and other consulting firms around the United States.

What is Stride’s genius zone? Stride’s genius zone is helping business owners embed data into their business decision-making so that they can achieve their highest and best use. Let’s jump into the show. I am so pleased that we have the opportunity to talk to Cliff MacDonald. Hey, Cliff?

Cliff McDonald: Hey, Russell. How are you?

Russell Benaroya: Great, nice to see you. Cliff is the managing partner and founder of Brainheart Growth. Brainheart Growth helps companies accelerate revenue. They also help companies improve sales morale. They also help companies realize the value that they are creating in achieving an attractive exit for the owner.

But the name Brainheart Growth says it all, and this is why I was so excited to talk to Cliff. Cliff and his team aren’t just running a formula to walk people through a sales process. They start with the human being. They guide clients to create an environment that is safe and nurturing for their clients so they feel safe and willing to explore, but also lead with candor and continuous learning.

We’ll hear about Brainheart’s approach toward guiding companies with sales leadership in a minute. I invited Cliff on the show because I knew that he had a certain magic about him, a certain disposition that I believe translates into how he works with clients. I’m really interested in learning more about his approach.

Cliff, what do you say? Ready to rock and roll?

Cliff McDonald: Let’s do it, Russell. Thank you.

Russell Benaroya: I know you come from a pretty athletic background. As I was trolling your LinkedIn, did I see ‌that your dad is in the Athletic Hall of Fame at UNH? Were you a football player? What’s your illustrious athletic prowess?

Cliff McDonald: Well, it’s not so illustrious. I was a student athlete growing up, and I did have the opportunity to play after high school. I played at Dartmouth College up in Hanover, New Hampshire. I played football through high school. I was a football player and a wrestler, and I was probably a better wrestler, but I really enjoyed football.

My dad was a much better athlete than me. My dad was an all-American college football player at the University of New Hampshire and he was also the New England heavyweight boxing champion, which he did without ever having an amateur boxing match.

My dad grew up in South Boston, a working class Irish Catholic neighborhood made popular by Goodwill Hunting. My dad estimates ‌he had a couple 100 street fights growing up as a kid. His grandfather was an 82nd airborne World War II veteran. My grandpa taught my dad how to box. My dad, after he got out of college, as a part-time job, became a professional boxer.

Russell Benaroya: Wow, I love it. Just to add a little additional texture to who Cliff MacDonald is, you also received a certificate in positive Applied Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania a couple of years ago. And I’m curious why you did that and why was it important to you to pursue it?

Cliff McDonald: Russell, you talked about the name of our firm, Brainheart Growth, and I am the managing partner and the founder. This was my concept and my idea. I had been a partner in a consulting firm that did work very similar to Brainheart Growth. My experience in the corporate world was one I thought was very impersonal.

Early in my career, I was in finance and in technology. In the mid-90s, it was kind of the height of political correctness. But having been a former competitive athlete, I was used to getting coached up really hard and really personal. I felt like my coaches and my good teachers always wanted to know who I was, on a human level.

Where are you from? What’s your background? What’s your family dynamic? How are you motivated? How were you inspired? And I thought that that was missing in the corporate world.

I was a Psych major in undergrad. I didn’t set any records in the classroom and undergrad either way but I was a Psychology major. I love studying people. I think what I really am is an organizational behaviorist. I love studying team dynamics and I’m fascinated with what makes certain teams thrive and win championships, and what makes other teams, oftentimes equally as talented, struggle and not win championships.

After I did my undergrad in Psych, I ended up going into business. I went back to school and did an MBA. Then, when we started the firm, there were a couple of areas where I thought I didn’t really know as much as I should know. And I just stumbled across Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is the study of what goes right in life. And we want to nurture, we want to develop, we want to train, and we want to even love these people. So I thought it would be really cool to explore this formally and see if we can include some of these concepts with how we’re developing what we call “elite revenue generation teams”.

Selling is extremely hard. I think it’s the most unique combination of skills. To be good at this gig, it’s really difficult. And I’ve always thought that emphasizing character strengths was much more effective than focusing on weaknesses. Let’s take what we already have and use those to our advantage.

So positive psychology is right up my alley. It’s only about a 20-year-old field and the program at the University of Pennsylvania is the best in the world. It was founded by Dr. Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of the field. I love this stuff. This is my jam for sure.

Russell Benaroya: It’s my jam too so I’m going to enjoy asking more questions about it. How about this refrain from a business owner? “Cliff, we really need some sales help. I’m just not a great sales guy. I don’t really like sales that much.” Do you ever hear that from a business owner?

Cliff McDonald: All the time.

Russell Benaroya: Take that and now talk about what you create, which is elite sales teams. Also, talk about the alchemy of why it’s such a great opportunity and challenge to create great sales people juxtaposed against business owners that they’re just not good at sales.

Cliff McDonald: I think there are so many myths about sales and we use a methodology. Our firm is a certified gap selling training partner, and that’s a methodology that we think is the best methodology that’s available. It’s modern. It’s new. It’s heavy on psychology.

There are so many sales myths. One of them is that salespeople just exist and they’re born. That’s not true; they’re made, and they’re made with a commitment to the craft.

Just like you have to learn great technique with shooting free throws, or a golf swing, you have to learn how to sell. And most mid-market companies don’t even have a methodology. Can you imagine going out and trying to run a successful football offense without a playbook? It’s insane. You have to have a playbook. You have to have a methodology.

That’s the first thing. Are you using a process for it? Are you refining the process? Are you teaching the process? Are you coaching the process? Are you committed to the process?

Second, old psychologist Daniel Pink wrote a book a long time ago called To Sell Is Human. He taught us that if you give people a word association… What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word salesperson? It’s very negative associations, and that’s a relic of the old sales guy who’s in your face, who’s going to pitch you stuff, who’s going to try and sell you things that you don’t really need? There’s this negative association with sales.

You don’t see people saying, “I love being a salesperson.” But what do you define selling as? If you buy into that I’m a nuisance, I’m bothering people, then it’s not going to be that much fun. The mindset is so important.

When I was in tech in the late 90s and early 2000s, I realized that it’s helping. If you say you don’t want to sell, that’s weird. Do you like helping people?

Russell Benaroya: Yes, absolutely.

Cliff McDonald: You’ve built some IP in your business? You’ve got some resources that are specific to your organization. You have some capital, you’ve made some investments, whatever it is. You probably call them products or services. Do you want to help as many people as you can with what you’ve built?

Russell Benaroya: Absolutely.

Cliff McDonald: That’s selling. You’ve gotta change your mindset. It’s easy to do that when you have a methodology that is focused on problem centric selling. That’s what our methodology is, as opposed to product-centric, where you show up and throw up. You’re selling the same thing to everyone in the same way, regardless of their environment. That’s old school, and it doesn’t work.

This is really high-level, consultative, problem-centric selling. This is a big commitment to changing the way we do it. And it’s really heavy in discovery. We want to be extremely curious and to really love business. Then after a lengthy, deep discovery, then and only then can we prescribe, “I think we can help you. Here’s how.”

So, we’ve kind of changed the whole thing. People that buy into this and get it, you can see the shift. I am the furthest thing from a nuisance or bothering someone. I can take tremendous pride in this craft because I get to solve big problems and help people.

Russell Benaroya: Is problem-selling a core tenant of the concept of gap selling? Maybe explain what gap selling constitutes.

Cliff McDonald: When we started the firm, we thought we were going to build our own sales methodology. We hadn’t found one that we thought was fantastic. Before we did that, I looked around, and I stumbled across Keenan, who’s the author of Gap Selling. He’s an awesome entrepreneur. He’s a great brand builder. I found him on LinkedIn and started following him. Then I learned that they were starting a new partner program. I was one of the first ones to raise my hand and I think I was the second certified gap selling training partner.

One of the foundational principles of gap selling is a shift from product-centric selling to problem-centric selling. The other one is asking great questions. Can we help these people? You have to dive really deep. The gap is the space between the current state and the future state. That’s where the value is created. The current state runs deep.

We don’t want to get a small window into your current state, we want to go deep. It might be five discovery calls. I might talk to people from HR, finance, or sales to really understand your environment. Then and only then can we identify the root cause. Then we start to prescribe something.

Gap selling is very new and there are a lot of people that are already on board with it. I think that’s going to continue to grow and we’ll see a lot more people adopting this approach.

Russell Benaroya: Why did you decide to focus on mid-market? What do you define as mid-market?

Cliff McDonald: Really, because I love underdogs and I love helping people that I think need more help. My parents were both teachers and I grew up around a lot of people that enjoyed helping other people. I was blessed that I got to work on Wall Street. I worked for big Fortune 500 firms with abundant resources. I went through an IPO with a company. I got an MBA through a company that I worked for.

Those guys have everything. I don’t think Cliff can help those companies that much. But if I’ve got a $5 million company that is CEO, founder led, and they’ve failed with three salespeople that they tried to develop into salespeople, and they’re stuck. They don’t have a marketing strategy. They don’t have a go-to-market strategy. They don’t have diversified sources to get leads. They don’t even have a CRM system.

When I see a company like that, I love it. We can have a real significant impact on these folks. That’s why we like it there. We do work with startups, too. We’re also creative and flexible. Long term, what we want to do is take equity positions. We love being in early, and if people think that we are a valuable partner, and we are helping them to go to places they haven’t been before, we talk about equity.

We’ve taken a few equity positions. Long term, we want a portfolio of brands that we’ve got skin in the game with. Then what happens is you develop almost an ecosystem. We’ve got client partners that can help each other. We can introduce them to each other sometimes. Long term, I think we’ll end up being a private equity company, but from the ground up, from an operating partner perspective.

Russell Benaroya: I’d love to see you create a peer group around your client partners that come together with some shared accountability around executing some of this great gap selling learning that you’re teaching.

Cliff McDonald: We just started doing a quarterly Summit. We’ve got five partners, and we invited some of our client partners to it. We had about 20, 25 people and we spent a day together. I think that’s going to become a thing and we’ll invite more people in. Now, post-pandemic, we can do that in person.

I love the concept of the ecosystem. You’ve got these folks that are passionate, that are growing their businesses, they want to share and grow together, and you bring them all together. That’s magic man. I do hope that we’ll do a lot more of that.

Russell Benaroya: What about this comment that you might get? “Cliff, I have tried to hire salespeople. I have not been successful. I just don’t know if anybody can sell our service other than me and that scares me. I want to rise above this business. I started this business so that I could have some semblance of freedom, but I feel like I’m totally stuck in it because I can’t figure out how somebody sells our service better than me. Can you help me?”

Do you ever hear that?

Cliff McDonald: No offense to any business owner or CEO/founder, but many of them think their business is more complicated than it is. They think it’s more nuanced and special than it is truly.

Are you a good teacher? Are you a good coach? Have you tried to develop these people? The answer is usually no. That CEO/founder, who has been the only salesperson, is also doing product development and finance and human resources. They just happen to be a good under trained salesperson who built the thing they’re selling so they’ve got a great story.

Those are a lot of our engagements where we are helping to create the first sales team, or sometimes even the first sales person that isn’t the CEO/founder. You do that in a deliberate intentional fashion and you repeat the process over and over again.

What happens is two things: the CEO/founder gets excited when someone else gets that first deal that isn’t him or her, but then they also realize, “Oh, I’m not that special.” My company is not that unique and not that different. But that’s when you can get into that hockey stick curve shape that we all want.

Russell, are you familiar with the EOS track? The visionary and the operator are never the same person. Those CEO/founders, when you can free them up to be the visionary and dedicate all their reach toward product development, building channels and you’ve got a sales team that you can rely on, that as a whole new world.

Russell Benaroya: It just feels good letting that drape over me. What do you find yourself telling your clients to stop doing versus start doing?

Cliff McDonald: A lot of them are doing things just because it’s the way they do it. That’s the way it’s always been done. In the lower mid-market, there are so many opportunities to get better. As I mentioned, I went back to school and studied two things. One was positive psychology and the other one was digital marketing. If you have not used digital marketing to grow your brand and stopped doing the way you used to do it to get MQLs, the world is your marketplace.

Most lower mid-market companies have done less than 1% of the things that they can do to leverage this thing called the World Wide Web. I think it’s possibly the most unexplored area for these lower mid-market businesses.

Stop doing things the way you used to regarding new opportunities. How do you find prospects? Use the internet. There are 12 different ways to begin with to use the internet to get new engagement, and marketing is so broad now. You’ve got different social media channels, email campaigns, Google ads, pay per click. There are so many different ways that you can use to generate new opportunities for your business to grow. You’ve got companies that still go to those two conferences every year and that is their only lead source.

Russell Benaroya: What do you see as often your clients’ blind spots? Like, they don’t see that there’s another way to acquire customers? Do they tend to have any other blind spots that make them their greatest obstacle?

Cliff McDonald: You can sell in a number of different ways. Most smaller companies sell direct, one-to-one, seller to buyer. One of the things I learned in the Fortune 1000 space is channel partnerships. We’d call that indirect selling.

You can go upstream, find a partner that’s a little bit bigger than you or a lot bigger than you that can benefit from what you do. They might already have an existing client base of 1000s of customers. Go to market with them and set up a revenue sharing deal or something like that.

We don’t see lower mid-market companies typically leveraging channel partnerships. You can build them and there’s a win-win theory. And that can be a revenue sharing model. We’re going to bring this together and it’s a 90-10 split, whatever it might be.

That would be a blind spot. Don’t just directly. Explore channel partnerships and you can have a sales force of people that don’t wear your hat. They can help you grow your business.

Second, there’s specialization within a sales organization. A lot of times, these lower mid-market companies have people who they expect to be hunters and farmers. Are you familiar with that term, Russell?

Russell Benaroya: Please, for our listeners, explain it.

Cliff McDonald: A hunter is a person on the sales team who is bringing in new logos. These are companies that have never spent a dime with us ever. We have to get to the point where they say, “We’re writing you a check because we find you so valuable.” It’s really hard to do, especially today with all of the messages we get. Even getting a call is so hard. That hunting job is extremely difficult.

Farming is a salesperson who is managing existing relationships. We call that account management or account executive. Those are two very different skill sets. If I’ve got 10 existing relationships that I manage, the goal is, number one, no churn, keep them happy, don’t compromise the base of revenue that we already have, but find other ways to help them.

The blind spot is that most people are farmers. It’s way easier. And when you ask a farmer to hunt, they’re not excited to do it and they’re not good at it. You have to find these people who are chomping at the bit to do that difficult pipeline building. Those are just grinders.

So, those are the two big blind spots: direct selling, no channel development, and then hunters and farmers not being clearly defined.

Russell Benaroya: Where do you find grinders?

Cliff McDonald: It’s hard. You talked about hiring. We bought a sales recruiting company at the beginning of this year. We don’t identify as a recruiting agency, but we do place salespeople. We don’t place IT people or HR people, only salespeople. We’re working on some proprietary tools that we use on the front end to assess these people in more meaningful and predictive ways than is being done right now.

There are a lot of misunderstandings. Think about how you get a sales job today. The salespeople turnover is crazy. Here’s the process. You’re a sales candidate. I’m a hiring manager, you send me your resume. Right away, we’re starting with fake information. I’m starting with a piece of paper that is not an accurate portrayal of who you are. I don’t get anything about your character defects, your areas of weakness, your failures. All I get is the good stuff that you’ve packaged for me.

Even a bad salesperson can have a good interview. Then, your first interview is with HR who knows nothing about selling. Then they pass them on and they’re like, “He’s great. He’s got a great degree from a nice school. He’s really friendly and he loves to talk,” suggesting that that might have something to do with being a good salesperson.

Then you’re passed on to a hiring manager who’s got the screws on him because he’s missing his number. He’s looking for a warm body and the employee has all the leverage in the labor market right now. He has another good interview. He’s like, “I’m going to take a shot at this guy because I’m behind and I’ve got two empty seats on my team.” Then the guy comes on board and they’re not nurtured. They’re not trained. They’re not coached. Six months in, they quit, and it’s a revolving door.

Then you start again. That’s a six-figure miss. Back to your question; how do we identify that hunter? For me, I look at the intangibles. I don’t care where you went to school at all. I don’t care what industries you’ve been in. What I care about is how hungry are you? How inspired are you? How are you inspired? Are you a problem solver? I want to know if you are a curious person.

Do you really have an inherent desire to understand this person’s business? If you don’t, you’re not going to work out with the methodology that we use. You have to want to understand that business. Not, I want to hit my quota, or I want to make $300,000 this year and go to the President’s Club. That’s all garbage. That’s yesterday’s salesperson.

We’re super excited about this. We think we’ll never get 100%, but if we can make progress and say, “You know what, we can help you reduce sales turnover by 10% or 20%.”One of the things I love doing is testing people for their character strengths. That’s a positive psychology thing. We’ve learned that there are six core buckets and they are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These are the six core virtues that everyone says it’s cool to be like that. Within that, there are 24 subcategories.

You can go to the VIA Institute character, and take a survey and find out what are your character strengths. I love knowing that. I did this and my character strength came back as kindness, gratitude, hope, curiosity, and fairness.

I was surprised because the culture I grew up in was that of the working class, warrior culture, football player, tough guy. It was not really promoted to me, as a teenage male in that culture, that being kind was cool. Almost more cool, would be a badass, be tough, be whatever, and that was always there. But kindness is awesome because it’s really correlated to wanting to help. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re going to see is what good, long term, sustainable salespeople want to do. They want to help people.

Russell Benaroya: I like the idea of taking that assessment. We’ll put that in the show notes. How does a company work with you? Do they reach out to you? How do you work with clients?

Cliff McDonald: Yes. Our most common engagement is a fractional executive leadership role, usually, a fractional chief growth officer or actual chief revenue officer. Typically, the way we set that up is it’s a fixed retainer, a monthly fee. We always start with a low-risk shorter term, 90-day engagement. Even with this thorough discovery, we use the methodology that we teach, but we’re always going to learn more after we start working together.

A big thing there is we want to make sure it’s a good fit. Cultural fit is really important. Do we get along? And that doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree. There needs to be healthy disagreement and we need to challenge each other. But are we truly aligned from a value perspective? Core value alignment is really important.

Then if that goes well, we’ll extend into a phase two engagement. We’ve found that for us to really be effective, it’s usually an 18 to 24 month kind of thing. We’ve extended even beyond that with some early clients that we had. Along the way, we do start talking about equity.

Russell Benaroya: Let me ask you the most important question. You owned an Irish pub and restaurant for 15 years, what were you thinking? Can you please share the background on that? That seems like an important question to ask today?

Cliff McDonald: Well, I am a serial entrepreneur, and I’ve done a number of different things. I had no idea that I was an entrepreneur because no one in my family had ever even worked in business. My dad was a Phys Ed. teacher and he did plumbing work on the side to make extra money. My family were workers and a lot of civil servants. I’m proud of my roots and tremendous strong work ethic.

If I had followed my heart when I was an undergrad, I actually would have been a football coach. But I ended up going into business. My dad grew up really poor and he had a scarcity mindset. If you grew up poor, you’re literally competing with your siblings for food sometimes and that mindset continued with him as a father.

My dad was a wonderful father, but we heard those messages a lot. You had to ask if you could eat food in your own house. If the door was open during the wintertime, you were chastised for wasting energy. So these messages of scarcity, which is the opposite of abundance.

If you think the world is abundant and it has everything for me and for everyone else, you go through life with a different attitude than scarcity. The emotional state that you have going through life is going to be very different.

I thought I was supposed to go make money. I went to an Ivy League school and most of the guys did investment banking, consulting, etc. That’s how I ended up on Wall Street. I was like, “Cool. I get to go do this thing and wear a suit and tie every day and make money.” There was a romantic element to it that was attractive.

I did that and I learned a ton. What I learned pretty quickly, though, was that it was boring. Once I made a little bit of money, it felt vacuous, a little bit empty. Tech was different; it was cool. You can see the impact we’re having. I was in tech from ’97 to ’04, gradually figuring out that what I love is the high-growth, creative part of it. I became an entrepreneur because my last job was a bad fit.

I took a job with a big telecommunications company, Sprint, now part of T Mobile, in their innovative e-business group, which really wasn’t that innovative. It was hard to get deals done. There wasn’t a lot of flexibility or creativity, and I just felt stifled. I had just finished my MBA and started to think I want to do something really creative on my own.

A good friend that I grew up with in Boston worked for Guinness, the Irish beer company. His clients were the highest-grossing Irish pubs in the country. As a good friend of his, he had an expense account that I was the beneficiary of. We used to go out all the time.

If you grew up in Boston, you know the Irish cultural presence is massive. So I was very familiar with it as an Irish pub patron. I wanted to do a business that I understood. I had waited tables earlier to make some extra money. He was like, “Hey, man, these places do really well.” I was like, “Oh, that’d be cool.”

Madison, Wisconsin, which is where I live, didn’t have a high end Irish pub at the time. I researched it and said, “I think we could give this a shot,” not knowing much about that business at all. I wrote a business plan and presented it to one bank in 2004. I had never run a business before, never mind a restaurant. And the bank said, “Sure, we’ll finance you.”

I made many mistakes, but we ended up having three locations and we built a cool $5 million brand. We had a great culture. We had a wonderful team; probably the funnest place I’ve ever worked. It was really fun. And if you want to be an entrepreneur, if you want to be a business owner, the best internship you could ever have is to start a business.

It was great. I made so many mistakes, but somehow the concept was good. We were able to go on a pretty good run. It was fun.

Russell Benaroya: Cliff, what I appreciate so much about our time today is, I like hearing what Brainheart does. This is really valuable for our listeners. It’s most interesting to me to learn more about the brain and the heart behind Brainheart because we live in a world of stories. You have a great story and your WHY is so impactful that it makes WHAT you do feel very meaningful, and I’m sure it is for the clients that you impact.

Cliff McDonald: Thank you, Russell. I really appreciate that. Simon Sinek, another positive psychologist, wrote Start with Why. You mentioned something earlier about losing track of time. There’s a thing called the flow state. Flow is a psychological state, a neurological state that we can get into when you’re doing something that requires a very high level of skill, and a very high level of enjoyment.

So, when you’re saying LeBron James is in the zone, he literally is in the zone. Or when you watch someone playing violin, or a painting, or doing whatever it is. I do feel that this is kind of a zone flow work for us. I am so grateful that we have the opportunity to do that work.

Remember what I said earlier. In my heart, I felt this way a long time ago, to be a coach. I let my brain veto that, so now it’s kind of more heart. And I think business done with heart is better.

It’s interesting now with AI and tech and all this stuff, the emphasis and the need that we’re having for people with soft skills. At the end of the day, it comes down to the humans.

Russell Benaroya: Yes. I’m hearing a lot about soft skills lately. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Cliff, thank you so much. This was terrific. If people want to get a hold of you, www.brainheart.com. I see you on LinkedIn, you’re not a hard guy to find but we’ll make sure your information is in the show notes.

Thank you for bringing this topic to the community. If we are going to truly help business owners get and stay in their genius zone, I am 99% confident that that area is probably not around selling, but it’s around helping people solve problems. My guess is that business owners really want to spend more time doing that and you’re helping them unlock it. Thank you.

Cliff McDonald: You are welcome, Russell. This was an absolute delight and honor. I always want to make sure I express my gratitude. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Russell Benaroya: Well, thanks again, Cliff. Thanks, everybody for listening today. We will see you on the next episode of the Stride 2 Freedom podcast. Talk to you soon. Take care. Bye

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