20 Nov Heed Your Call – Interview with David Howitt
Listen To The Episode Here
David Howitt is the CEO of the Meriwether Group and is also the author of Heed Your Call. Dave shines a new preservative on the role of a guide or mentor. He says that not all mentors make you feel good, but they can always teach you a very profound and important lesson about yourself and about the world. He also explains why the story of Wizard of Oz and the entrepreneur’s journey are very similar to one another.
Heed Your Call – Interview with David Howitt
Hi and welcome to The Successful Pitch Podcast. Today’s guest is author David Howitt of Heed Your Call. He’s also the founder and CEO of Meriwether. I’ve had the honor of reading his book. It has so much great information about how to be a successful founder and also a successful person. David, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much. I really appreciate you having me, John.
I want to start at the very beginning, like most things do, give people a little context of texture. You obviously have quite an impressive background. You worked at Adidas both in their legal division and went into licensing. You and your wife launched Oregon Chai and sold that successfully in 2004.
There’s a lot of journey that you talk about in your book, Heed Your Call, about what made you … So many of us are told, “Do this and you’ll be happy.” Then you find that career path and you’re like, “This isn’t making me happy.”
You’ve managed to have multiple careers. You now have Meriwether Group, which helps founders through variety of things that will get into. If you would, give us a little context of what was it like when you were miserable as a lawyer and where did you find the courage to leave that and start your business with your wife?
I appreciate that introduction. Thank you very, very much. I so appreciate what you do and being on the show and having the opportunity to speak to your listeners. Thank you for that.
In terms of the law firm and my journey, I think like most of us, I stepped into what Joseph Campbell, and we’ll speak more about him, refers to as the known world. Joseph Campbell, who was the foremost authority on mythology, looked through a variety of cultures, spiritual belief systems, time and geography and came away saying that there is one central mythology, one central myth that’s been prevalent through all of those things, which in and off itself is powerful.
In that myth, which he referred to as the hero’s journey, he built a roadmap. This roadmap was the articulation of one person’s journey in life. What I’ve found in reading that is, it’s truly applicable to all of us and applicable to business.
For me, in answering your question directly, my known world was growing up in a middle class, conservative town in Michigan and having parents and grandparents and neighbors and friends and teachers, all of whom I listened to and respected and admired. All had a central thesis which is, “You should go do this.”
For me, that “this” was, you graduate from high school, you go to a four year college and then you go on to some form of grad school. You graduate, you go get a great job somewhere that you may or may not like, likely you won’t like, but that has high level of earning potential. You meet someone, you get married, you have 1.2 kids, buy a house and check all the boxes. I subscribed to that.
My known world took me all the way to the point that I found myself in a very large law firm. One day, I woke up and said, “Boy, I’m miserable. This is really not a happy place for me. I don’t feel like I’m in alignment with what is my truest self. It’s starting to show itself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I need to think about what to do.”
Of course, at that moment, ego jumps in and starts screaming at you. There’s nothing you can do. People will think you’re insane if you quit this job, you’ll go broke, you’ll be homeless, your wife will leave you, your neighbors will think you’re mad. I struggled with it for a while, probably close to a year, before I got to a place where I finally decided to surrender and let go because it was just so painful.
You talk about that in Heed Your Call. We’re so concerned about worrying about what other people think about us and wanting other’s acceptance. We live our life from a place of fear and trying to control things all the time.
I think everyone listening can relate to that, no matter where you are on the startup journey, whether this is your first startup or your fifth startup. There’s a journey. Overcoming fear is a part of it.
Huge part of it. It’s interesting John, that in our society, in business and in our personal lives, we’re told that fear or that letting go or that surrender is the equivalent of failure. If you allow yourself to be humbled and to say, “I actually need to let go of this or I’m afraid of this or this is no longer serving me. I give up.” That that is waving the white flag and admitting defeat and being a failure.
In Buddhism, it’s exactly the opposite. One of my mentors and guides, Deepak Chopra, who’s very successful in business and in life said, “When we surrender, when we finally let go, actually that’s when possibility is at its highest. That’s when creativity is at its highest, and that’s where our ability to co-create a result in our business and/or in our lives is at its highest.” It’s by surrendering, it’s by letting go that in fact we invite in the potential to actually align ourselves with our highest and best.
That’s great, we’re going to tweet that out. That will be one of the first tweets from the show. “When we let go, possibility and creativity are invited in.” That’s a great line. I love it. Thank you.
What I want to say also, everything I’ve tried to put forward in Heed Your Call and that we’re talking about now is stuff that I’ve seen illustrated in the world, in business. I felt like there were a ton of great spiritual books out there and a ton of great books out there on business but maybe not one that had built a bridge between the two.
Having grown up in a home where there wasn’t a lot of woo-woo spirituality around and having gone to law school, really wanted this book to be grounded in actual business case so that maybe the ego for your listeners and for some of the readers can let down a little.
That concept of surrendering and letting go and that allowing for creativity and for possibility is something I have seen demonstrated in so many successful businesses, including Oregon Chai.
One of the things that I really resonate with what you just said that’s in your book is, I’m going to quote, “When we dial up too much of our left brain tendencies and ignore our more empathetic and intuitive nature, our relationship with the collective consciousness diminishes.”
I’m personally really fascinated with that because what I do is I help the founders, tech founders in particular, which are very left brain, about how something works. When they’re pitching, what they don’t realize is they have to move to the right side of the brain, which is the spirituality, the storytelling, the emotional engagement. That’s where all the selling occurs.
You are able to left brain, lawyer, until the cows come home and shift that into a right brain story. Speaking of stories, let’s jump right into, one of my favorite stories in your book is about your grandfather. This great line about, “Instead of why is this happening to me, why is this happening for me.”
Everyone has had that question that they ask themselves in their life, in their startup. Please tell us about that story and your grandfather. What an amazing influence.
Thank you. Thank you for that. My grandfather was not a traditionally educated man in the sense of western culture. Didn’t have a big college degree or grad school degree, but he was very successful entrepreneur and a very successful person. He credited that with what he referred to as using commonsense.
When I dug a little deeper on what he meant by that, effectively what he started to articulate, and I later really came to understand, is that comment that you mentioned about what you do, which help people to toggle seamlessly between the left brain and the right brain. What we refer to at the Meriwether Group is the power of ‘And’. You need to have analytics but you also have to have artistry. You need to have intuition in addition to intelligence.
Prophets and profits. It’s when we combine our whole brain, when we bring our truest and fuller self, that the magic happens. With regard to my grandfather, I think he embodied that. He had enough of those left brain chops. He understood how to build a profit and law statement, how to look at it income statement, margin, supply chain, the consumer.
He probably wasn’t the best at it but he was certainly capable. He also had empathy and had the ability to understand his consumer deeply and his audience. As you put forward so well, when you’re working with your clients to help them understand deeply. In the book, Heed Your Call, I speak of deep empathy.
Our ability to be connected to the other is so present at any given moment. If we just allow ourselves for ego to quiet down, we truly can walk in another person’s shoes, sit in their seat and truly appreciate and understand what it is that they are living with and/or looking for.
We can shape our message, we can shape our pitch, we can shape our business, our product or service in a way that is going to be most likely to be embraced by our audience, our consumers. My grandfather talked about these subtle shifts that were really pretty powerful.
The one in which you comment on, when you look at life and certainly in business, you’re going to have multiple times, I certainly still do, where you’re going to hit a wall. Where you’re going to have someone in the organization you’re butting heads with. Where you’re going to have some type of challenge or hardship that is really in your face.
I think most of us, when that happens, we go into this victim mentality of, “Why this is happening? Woe is me. This is so hard. Why do I have to deal with this every day?” But if you can shift that, as my grandfather taught me, and ask yourself, “Why is this happening for me? What is the lesson here? What is the mirror of being held up to me that’s going to allow myself to grow as a professional, as an individual, as a boss, as an employee?”
I think when we look at life through that lens, suddenly the shift allows us to actually approach these challenges through a lens of possibility, instead of a lens of being restricted. Carlos Castaneda, in his books, refers to guides and mentors. I think for most of us, we always think of a guide or a mentor as someone who is there to really help you, who’s your friend, who is there to give you positive reinforcement and tools.
Carlos Castaneda talks about guides and mentors that are actually there to create impediments for us. They’re still your guides, they’re still your mentors. They don’t do it in a way that feels as good maybe, but they’re there to help us overcome elements of our personality or of our journey that are going to allow us to move further down the path.
When you find that in your work, in your job, think of these people as a guide or as a mentor and what it is that they’re there to teach you about yourself or the world.
There’s so many things you’ve said that I want to recap. First of all, I’ve never heard this phrase you said and I love it. We’re going to tweet that out. “Prophets versus profits.” That is absolutely brilliant because it’s the whole ‘And’ philosophy. Your book talks about, you need to be the thinker and the dreamer. You need to be the artist and the scientist. You need to have profits and prophets.
Your analogy in the book of even music has a light and dark keys so that you need both sides to make that sing to the investors when you’re pitching. It all ties together in such a great metaphor that you just said. Thank you for that.
Your book is broken down into three different categories, sections. Initiation, mentors and masteries. I want to touch briefly on each one of those sections just to tease our audience to make sure they go out and buy it and read it.
The initiation, the thing that really stands out for me is, you not only have to hear the call but you have to heed the call. Hence, the title of the book. The mentors that you just touched on, is most people that assumed that mentors are only going to be your cheerleader, if you will. Help you and not give you any obstacles.
What you’ve just said is so interesting. You know what, somebody may not have the label of guide or mentor, but if they’re giving you a challenge, if you shift your perception, they can absolutely become a mentor. Of course, the whole mastery.
Let’s dive into mastery a little bit, which is what we do at Meriwether, which I really want you to, if you wouldn’t mind, walk the audience and listeners through all the different options that you provide founders from the Accelerator to giving capital.
Thank you, John. Appreciate it. Our firm, the Meriwether Group, was really based on the power of ‘And’. Based on being with an entrepreneur and a business owner through all facets of their journey. We ground it on the left brain side with what historically was called a merchant bank.
Merchant banks, back in the day, were had very high touch concieglary partners to business owners and folks who were birthing businesses. They basically locked arms with you and said, “We can help you understand how to grow your business and actually be there to assist you with the work. We can add capital, if that’s necessary, as part of your growth. When you’ve reached your defining moment, we can assist you through an exit that is high watermark economics.”
Those groups were largely bought up by large multinational financial organizations because they were so successful. As often happens, the very things that made them special were lost in those acquisitions. We felt again, from the left brain side, that this model of a more, I would say connected and more holistic partnership in helping these business owners made more sense than forcing them to talk to one group about growth, a different group about capital and a totally separate group about preparing for or going through an exit.
That is very disjointed, it’s very disconnected. It has an inherent risk. For people like your listeners who were working 70 hours a week, trying to start up those different relationships or juggle three different relationships, is often very tiring. That was a left brain concept.
The right brain addition to that is again, back to Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. I’ll use an illustration that hopefully your listeners will identify with. The hero’s journey has been a central thesis for a many of the biggest movies and books.
John Lucas cites the hero’s journey as the basis for Star Wars and all of the storytelling. The Avatar movie, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit. The list goes on. I’m going to use the Wizard of Oz as a way to explain what we do at the Meriwether Group and how it ties back to this notion of the hero’s journey.
We defined, at the Meriwether Group, the entrepreneur as the modern day hero. It’s our belief that entrepreneurs, your listeners, people who are birthing new businesses, disrupting the status quo, looking at the world and asking themselves, “Where has the consumer been deprived of innovation, of relevance and of a really good choice?” Then bringing that to the market.
Those people are modern day heroes. More so than politicians, more so than maybe even folks in NGOs. We want to be in service to that hero. We want to be a guide or mentor to them. You have this founder and they live in the known world. For me, it was growing up in Michigan, we talked about that.
For some of us, that desire to listen to the quiet spot inside of us that tells us, “Hey, this isn’t what you should be doing. Or this path isn’t your highest and best.” For some of us, we actually get to a place where we open ourselves up to listening to that voice. That voice is always there. It’s always present, but we do things to try to quiet that voice. Because that voice is a voice of change and a voice of risks.
Ego doesn’t like that. We employ tactics to try to keep that voice at bay. We say things to ourselves like, “I could never follow my heart. I could never start this business. I could never do this because …” Fill in the blanks. “I have a mortgage. I have kids going to college. I have car payment.”
As the result, we live our lives in the known world. We don’t ever take that shot. As an aside, in writing Heed Your Call, I spoke with a number of end of life caregivers. Mostly through the hospice support. The single biggest regret people have as they’re reaching the end of their life is, “I didn’t take my shot. I lived my life in accordance with other people’s view of who I should be. I played it safe. I really wish I hadn’t.”
Back to Wizard of Oz. You’ve got Dorothy and she’s living in Kansas. That’s her known world. Dorothy feels like there’s got to be something more than a dirt farm in Kansas. She finds herself leaving her known world. We all know she ends up in Oz. This is the founder leaving their job, leaving their career, leaving the vestiges of the known world and taking the leap and starting the company.
Initially, it’s pretty euphoric. Dorothy, it’s beautiful colors with all these people singing and played for her and she’s excited. She has left the bonds of the known world. We all know this, business owners, we know this moment. We celebrate it.
But it’s pretty short lived is what mythology tells us. Eventually you have, as Dorothy did, your “witch” shows up in a puff of green smoke and says, “I’m going to get you, my pretty.” Now, for the business owner, that might be, “This business idea’s cool, but I didn’t think through the supply chain or how I was go to the market or is there enough margin or can this product actually be made?”
You fall into what Campbell refers to as the abyss. The abyss is that moment of despair where we have to actually surrender and let go. We have to give up, drop our arms and literally say, “I give up. I don’t know that I can do this.”
Interestingly, it’s that moment in time when the mentors and guides show up. The reason is I think, that before that moment of humbling, you’re not going to be open to the advice or counsel of people around you because you know it all. Because you just started your business, you’re all that. The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
I love that.
It’s this moment of surrender where we are now truly open to possibility. That’s when people show up.
Most investors are constantly telling me, “We need to work with people who are coachable.” When you’re telling this story, they must be humble to surrender in this abyss that they’re coachable for the first time, maybe.
Coachable, open to advice, self-aware, they know what they know but they’re also very aware enough to acknowledge what they don’t know and where they need help. We will not consider working with or investing in a company until the founder has been at that point. At that point, your Obi-Wans, your Yodas, and in this case, the case of Dorothy, your lion and your scarecrow and your tin man show up.
They’re there to walk the path with you. They can’t take the journey for you but they’re going to be on the yellow brick road, literally the path, alongside you on your journey. They’re going to help you to learn what Campbell refers to as the tools of transformation.
For Dorothy, if you recall, the tin man, the lion and the scarecrow were there for heart, brains and courage. Those are the three things she was going to learn about herself on the journey. For our clients and for your listeners, some of those tools of transformation are going to be finance, operations, sales, marketing, go to market strategy, licensing, business development.
These are what we, at the Meriwether Group, bring to our clients when they’re in that process of transforming the business as truly becoming and where the founder and the owner is deeply on their path of growth. You’re walking down your path, you’re on your journey, you’re learning the tools of transformation and now you reach your defining moment.
For Dorothy, her defining moment, or so she thought it was, was going to see the great and all powerful wizard. She had this notion that the journey was going to be something outside of herself. Of course, you know the story. She gets there and there is no great and all powerful wizard. Initially, she’s destroyed. What has this journey all been about?
One of her guides and mentors, Glinda, the Good Witch says, “Silly girl, all you have to do is click your heels together three times.” You’ve always had the power. You are the hero of your own journey. You are capable of doing whatever it is you want to do when you’re in alignment with your truth.”
That is true, of all the businesses we work with. They feel like that defining moment is something outside of themselves, but ultimately it is about them getting to a place where they’re finally in flow. That may mean that’s it’s an exit, a sale of the company. It may mean an IPO. It may be an ESOP or a succession plan or it may be bringing some executives into the leadership team that allows that founder to start thinking about their next journey.
It’s true because of the journey, the world is better and you are better for having taken it. The Meriwether Group, for us, the three main places on the journey are, we can help you build the strategy and help you actually execute on that strategy as a group of former founders, as a group of former business owners and entrepreneurs. We have walked the path. Now we’ll walk it with you.
We can assist you with capital, if that’s one of the tools that you need along the path of growth. If you need capital, we’ll make it available.
Let me ask you about that in particular. Since for so many of the listeners, that’s what they’re interested in. If someone’s going to pitch you for Meriwether Group to invest in them, whether they’ve gone through your Accelerator … Ideally, somebody would start in you Accelerator, hit some milestones. Then you would know them and believe in them. You would continue that relationship and invest in them and then help them exit.
I totally love that journey that you just took us on with the Wizard of Oz. If someone says, “I think I don’t need an Accelerator, but I do need capital. I want to pitch David and the Meriwether Group.” What do you look for in a pitch?
I’ll speak to that but I’ll say that’s not our sweet spot. As a person, on my journey, I’m not entirely interested in just being an investor. For me, I derive a lot of personal satisfaction from being part of the journey. If it’s just, “We need a check. Thank you. We’ll be on our way.” There are time we’ll do that but it’s pretty rare.
It’s usually that we’re working with you, we’re in the journey, we’re part of it. “Hey, we identify together, you need X amount of dollars to really get to the defining moment. We can make that available.”
Having said that, to answer your question, I think a few things are really important in a pitch. Again, I’m going to speak to this in terms of the left brain and right brain. We want to see that you clearly understand the business and you can speak to the financials and you can speak to a plan and articulate the critical components of how you’re going to reach the plan.
We want to see that, as a founder and/or your team, that you have enough self-awareness to know that there are going to be probably areas where you’re going to need help and be aware of those areas. Be humble and not pretend that you know everything. We also want to see, and these are really important, that the business, product or service is disruptive.
We define that either as creating a new category where one has not existed, or looking at categories that are tired and complacent and are in need of evolution or revolution. I’ll give you a couple examples.
Oregon Chai, there wasn’t a chai category. There was tea and tea was a mug of hot water and a bag of chamomile or Earl Grey.
Not even like the British duet. The American version was very …
That’s all there was. No one had created a new way to consume tea that maybe gave the consumer an experience that was a bit more like a latte or a cappuccino. We had this dynamic prior to Chai where you would walk in to a Starbucks or a café and your choices were have a really fun, free leaf, aspirational, experiential coffee drink, or get a mug of hot water and a bag of the same stuff that my great grandmother used to dip into her hot water.
We wanted to change that. We redefined the drink. We were disruptive by looking at categories that are tired and stale.
Can I pause one second?
I just want to acknowledge your wife’s role with you in Oregon Chai. In the book, you talked about it so much. It was her passion and her tenacity that kept you believing. Even when you didn’t believe, she still believed. I think that’s really important for the listeners to know that when you’re pitching, you’ve got to have the passion and tenacity and held on to that dream.
That’s a great point. Heather was the right brain and I was the left. Unknowingly, we came together. Whether you have a partner or whether it’s just you in any pitch, make sure you have equal parts passion and equal parts presentation.
Have the person, whether it’s you shifting your own role in the presentation or a partner or a key manager that can speak to the boring stuff, but the important boring stuff. You have to have that founder energy that is truly about authentically needing to birth this. It’s truly like having a child.
Heather was that incarnate. Every one of the best pitches that we’ve seen that has been successful, of every great brand and business, has had an incredibly strong founder that has imprinted their DNA on the company.
Phil Knight at Adidas. Jobs. These different people who have birthed these companies. I’m looking at categories that are tired and stale. One of our favorite clients, Dave’s Killer Bread, Dave Dahl. This guy spent fifteen years in prison and came out and decided he was going to launch a bread company.
He looked at the category bread and, pun intended, it was stale. There was brown bread and white bread in the same wrapper. But nothing’s differentiated them. He created a brand that cut through the noise. As the result, he went from the Portland Farmers’ Market to having sold his business three weeks ago for $275 million.
What a success story. Congratulations. I know I saw that he’s on your website as one of your clients. You’re being a little humble there. I just want to shout out that you guys helped make that story come true. It’s not him by himself. We’re going to tweet out, “Equal parts, passion and presentation.” That’s great. Really great.
I think you got to have both. We want to see both in a pitch to us. If you’re too left brained and you are just super buttoned up on that stuff, it’s not going to capture our attention because there is nothing about it that is aspirational. There’s no passion in it. You’re going to be a company selling widgets.
If you’re too right brained, you have all the beauty and all the meaning and purpose and all of the storytelling. You’re an art gallery or non for profit. That’s wonderful, but we’re not going to be interested.
It’s when you can combine the two, that’s where the magic happens. Interestingly, Google is hiring more MFAs than they are MBAs right now. Nike, who we work very close with, their senior executive team tells us, “We’re not a company that sells shoes and apparel. We’re a company that shares experiences and, oh by the way, we have this product that you can use.”
I think the future belongs to those pitches, businesses and business owners that know how to encapsulate that. How can you be beauty and art and also be profitable and scalable? How can you have passion and also have PNL? When you can braid those together, you are going to create something that the consumer is going to yearn for.
Yes, beautifully said. We’re coming toward the end of the podcast already. It goes so fast with all your great stories. Thank you for giving us a whole other description of the Wizard of Oz and looking at it as the founder going through the yellow brick road and having all the obstacles to overcome and then realizing what the defining moment is.
It’s still inside, even if it’s an exit. You have to keep your path growing. You can’t just stop there because it keeps going. It starts all over again. David, is there one book, besides Heed Your Call obviously, that you would recommend to founders to read about investment or not?
Yeah, can I answer with two?
I referenced a bunch of times in this conversation, in our discussion, Joseph Campbell. It’s a thick one but I think there’s so much in there that can be helpful to a founder in learning about themselves, their business. That’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s a wonderful book.
The other book is, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It’s a quick read. Again, I think there’s so many takeaways in terms of how you approach life and business that could be really powerful for a business owner and founder. Those are two that I would recommend.
Fantastic. We’ll definitely put your book, Heed Your Call, as well as those two in the show notes for people to be able to click it. Your book is obviously available on Amazon. If anybody wants to reach out to you to be part of the Accelerator or just follow you on social media, can you tell us what’s the best way to keep in touch with you or follow you?
Thank you. Our business, the Meriwether Group, we have a website and it’s just MeriwetherGroup.com. There’s a way to reach out to us there. There is a Heed Your Call Facebook community and we try to update that pretty regularly. We have an Instagram account as well, @HeedYourCall. Twitter as well, @HeedYourCall.
Those things should be available to your listeners. I just really appreciate this opportunity to connect with you John, and with your listeners. I would love to hear from you guys. If there’s questions, follow up if you want to talk with us at the Meriwether Group about how we can work together. Comments in book. Anything. I’m here.
Fantastic. David, you’ve been a great guest. We are so honored to learn your life lessons, not only about what it takes to be successful, but this huge takeaway of profits and prophets. The thinker and the dreamer. The artist and the scientist. You are someone who walks your talk and it’s been an honor to have you on the show. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you deeply. Have a great day.
The Meriwether Group
Heed Your Call by David Howitt
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joesph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey by Joesph Campbell
Heed Your Call Facebook
Heed Your Call Twitter
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
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