Starting a Commerically Scalable Business with Pay it Forward Labs’ Brian MacMahon

November 24, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good. We’ve got Brian McMahon with us today. He’s the Chief Community Officer from Pay It Forward Labs. We’re honored to have you here with us today, Brian. Welcome to Green is Good Radio. We’re here at the Green Festival in Los Angeles for a special edition of Green is Good at the Green Festival. Before we get talking about what you do with Pay It Forward Labs, how you started it, talk a little bit about the Brian McMahon journey leading up to Pay It Forward. How did you even get here? BRIAN MCMAHON: It’s a long story. I’ve lived in approximately 35 countries over the last 20 years. I’m a commercial broker. One of the things I find that as a commercial broker is that it’s incredibly hard to start your own business. You know about your own niche. I knew my workspace, but you don’t know about everything else. This is why there’s such a tremendously high failure rate within companies. That’s kind of what took me to Pay It Forward. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What year did you start it? BRIAN MCMAHON: Five years ago. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What exactly is Pay It Forward Labs? For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Brian’s great company, it’s www.payitforwardlabs.com. BRIAN MCMAHON: Wonderful. When I mentioned that it’s incredibly hard to start a business, most of the reason for that is because you lack expertise in those areas. Pay It Forward Labs is a listing of experts who are incredible at every single aspect of business you can imagine. Anything to do with marketing, legal, venture capital, social media, technology, just imagine an aspect of business that you want to know about, and then you get access to those people. The beautiful thing is the community then rate the value of the feedback that they get from those people, so we get to find out something which is incredibly hard to find, not just in California, but anywhere in the world, which is real experts curated by real people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, if I have a business concept or a new vision I’ve developed, I come to payitforwardlabs.com and I can find all the resources I need to start my business and take it from widget to commercial scalable product? BRIAN MCMAHON: Yes. One of the interesting things is actually starting a business is a journey. It’s probably one of the most difficult and frustrating journeys that anybody will ever have. It’s made to look wonderful because the only thing we ever see are the winners on television, but 98.4% of all companies that get funded through venture capital fail. What that means is it’s almost impossible to be successful in your business at the beginning. I don’t want to give no hope to listeners; there is hope, but there’s only hope if you go on the right road quickly. For example, here at the Green Festival, and the Green Festival really wanted to make sure not just the exhibitors but also the people who are coming had a chance of success, not just that they came here, they exhibited, and they have a good festival, but they had a really good start on their business to continue with the right roads. They asked us to bring 30 of our best mentors, and we brought marketing people, we brought technology people, and when I say people, I mean at least of the 30 people we brought, at least 20 of those people had sold companies for over $5 to $10 million. We’re talking really high-quality people. Those people then gave their time for the entire afternoon to do one-on-one sessions with people, spoke to people, advised them, helped them. The really nice win-win here is that what we’re trying to do is take something which a thousand years ago or 100 years ago, this was the basis for business. You asked your cousins, your brothers, your friends, everybody else you know, how do you actually start your business and what do you do? And, you take that advice. The challenge that we’ve got now is that people rely on the 1%. We rely on that 1% of people to give us mentorship. I and we want to take it to a level where the 99% can give mentorship. We all have an expertise in an area. If we bring that expertise to the online platform, and then we let the community rank that expertise based on actually how useful we are in our level of expertise to the community, then the community wins because they get all this great advice for free, and the mentors and the experts, which is everybody, wins because they get to be elevated to a position of not just social recognition, but also potential job recognition in the future and fee recognition when they do get paying jobs. Actually, if I take it a step further, I think that the level of trust as a value proposition to companies when finding people has never been higher because our trust level has never been lower. To be able to get people who are actually rated that highly because of what the community says, it increases everybody’s chances of getting more money. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is this festival your first Green Festival here in Los Angeles, or have you done others before? BRIAN MCMAHON: This is our first one, and we’re going to take it straight to San Francisco. As soon as I did the first afternoon here and we had our first interaction with the exhibitors, we had some really great specialists. We had a guy named Dr. John Oda who’s worked with Tony Robbins. We also had a lady called Pina De Rosa. She’s got about 300,000 YouTube hits for her TED Talk on mindset effectiveness. We also had the head of the Environmental Committee in the city of Santa Monica, who were the cities who’ve really implemented their environmental policy much better than other cities. We also had a chap that owns about five outsourced call centers who’s onstage as well. We also had a guy called Ash Kumra who’s been recognized by the White House three times for his entrepreneurship. We had those five or six people up on the stage. This was in addition to the mentors that we also had over in the other area too. We started off by actually speaking to what the journey should look like and actually giving advice and help. It then turned into something which is really nice. We started growth hacking their companies. Growth hacking is a term that’s quite a recent term. If you imagine marketing, going on the road around the mountain, growth hacking is just a straight climb up. You look and you are cruelly hard and direct about the points that you make about people’s businesses. We started taking websites of green companies here in the audience, pulling them up on the screen, and doing a five-minute talk with our experts about what needed to be fixed. Here’s the news flash with all of this. 99% of us have something wrong. We either have our website wrong, we have the legal entity that we have in place wrong, we have the technology that our platform is built on wrong, we have our retail shop wrong, we have our brand which isn’t quite aligned with the other things. All of these areas, I think if you can build a trusted social network, that maybe this can be a network for good rather than most of what comes out in technology these days. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we are so excited to have with us today Brian McMahon. He is the Chief Community Officer of Pay It Forward Labs. It’s www.payitforwardlabs.com. Brian, talk a little bit about the giving wall. What is the giving wall? BRIAN MCMAHON: It’s kind of interesting. I just want to say Pay It Forward Labs, for us, we never know what will happen in the future, but it’s a nonprofit. We came into this business, we don’t make money from it, we don’t charge fees for it, nobody pays a membership to get into it. I make my money from the commercial brokerage that we’ve had for years and years and years. Where the really interesting journey happened for me was when I started off my brokerage, I thought, “What if we could create a concept whereby you get a better return on investment for giving than you would normally get if you started a business?” For example, when somebody starts a business normally, they do marketing. They pay for pay-per-click, they pay for Google AdWords and Facebook and all these other faceless things which have nothing to do with value-based propositions. What if we can build a community and try to do it? That’s where Pay It Forward came from. Then right in some of the initial events, I thought, “What do I have that’s of value to the community that I can do? That’s workspace.” I have thousands of workspace providers, or people who have office space in those areas, where they’ll give me those spaces for free. We started to create physical events. The physical events had two rules behind them. We said, “Look, it’s the same Pay It Forward concept as we have within the online platform.” I was already friends with the people from the actual Pay It Forward Foundation, the organization themselves, who do a wonderful job. We have the producer of the original Pay It Forward movie who’s part of our movement as well. I thought, “Why don’t we create these really great events in these local areas? Why don’t we bring people in for free?” We don’t charge anything. What really surprised me, especially in somewhere like Santa Monica, where you wouldn’t imagine it’s the most giving place because there’s a lot of pressure on success. I wondered how big the events would become. We suddenly had 500, 600, 800 people coming in on a Monday night, all coming together. We would say, “There’s only two rules, really, behind you coming. The first rule is you can’t pitch. Nobody wants to hear your pitch. Nobody cares about your pitch. You’re just going to bore people and put it into the usual networking scenario. You have to come and ask what is it that I can do for you? What is it that you need? The second rule is you actually have to mean the question. You have to actually care about what you can change within that person’s business, because if you do that and then you multiply it by 400 or 500 people, you then have something powerful. You then have something which is real change.” The giving wall kind of came almost organically from that. Somebody said, “Look, we can’t meet 500 people. Can I just write up on the wall something I’m going to give away for free?” I think it was the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce that did the first one. They said, “We want to just give a membership to one person for free for a year.” It’s a $500 value. It’s a good value thing to give away, but their angle was if we give away a membership to one person, maybe other people will be interested. We don’t need to give it away to those people. Maybe we give them a discount, but we’ll get prospects. We’ll get prospects by giving. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually all right by doing it that way because they’re giving to one person. They can choose the person they gave to. We put it a post-it up on the wall, a big orange post-it. Imagine what the normal post-it looks like and multiply it by three or four for the big Staples ones. We put an envelope underneath it, and we said, “Anybody who’s interested in this, just put your card in.” They had to come back for another envelope about 10 minutes later. So, then more people put it up, and more and more and more. We had 400 to 500 post-its, people offering jobs, services. The only rule is everything is free. You don’t need to give a whole product away, but maybe you just give a taste of it away, a test drive of it away. Maybe you give two hours of social media training for free. If you do an amazing job, people will want more. But then you give it for free. It’s kind of a freak of nature. It’s beautiful to watch. Our demographic at the events are everybody from 20-year-olds to 60-year-olds. It’s 50/50 men and women. If anybody knows Santa Monica, that’s not the Santa Monica way. I don’t know if I can say it, but sometimes it feels like Children of the Corn. It’s just the technology area. We wanted to change that so that we actually were totally inclusive with every area of business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Brian, during the day, just so I understand this and our listeners understand this, you’re a commercial real estate broker, but this is something you’ve done as a mission. BRIAN MCMAHON: If I worked for me, I would fire myself. I have done so little on commercial real estate, but what happens in commercial real estate is I’ve got great people in the brokerage who do a lot of that work for me now. I think in life, if you’re not driven by a passion or something which is having an effect, sometimes it’s positive effects, sometimes it doesn’t work out as positively as you think, but you need to at least have the aim of doing something that you can get to wherever you get to and say they’re OK. I did something which was of value. So, you need to get money, but the commercial brokerage does OK. For me, this area here, this whole Pay It Forward, has a much deeper meaning. It has a meaning of great evangelists out there like Marianne Williamson and Tom Schues, and all of those people, what they try and do, which is to prove that actually by doing good, it’s not just a better way to live or a more sustainable way, it’s actually a more profitable way to work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I agree, and I think our listeners agree also. We have listeners all around the United States and all around the world, Brian. What cities today are you in? Where do you intend to take this? BRIAN MCMAHON: We started off in Los Angeles, which we still are. We’re going into San Francisco at the end of this month. Because we’re an online platform, the wonderful thing here is I want to get it to a place where if you want to get technology advice, literally you’ve got people in Poland and Russia and everywhere else. The great thing about technology, we kind of got to this on the panel yesterday over at the Green Festival, is that 70% of businesses that are out there today can be green businesses very easily. A technology business that changes the way workspace is done is a green business because we’ve reduced the platform that we’re on. From our perspective, there’s no real limit to what we can do and the amount of people that we can have in this platform. It’s up to people to register their expertise, put themselves up in the platform, and just be seen. Then we’ll make sure that stuff gets relayed to them, will get pushed directly in their place. We want to have it global, we want to have it available, we want to have it that it’s never, ever a charged product, not for the normal, not premium, nor anything else. That is something that people can use for a real part of their business plan for the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that are really excited right now about Pay It Forward Labs, how do they get involved? Is it as easy as going to the website, www.payitforwardlabs.com and signing up right now? BRIAN MCMAHON: There are two areas which are always really useful. The first thing is yes, go onto the site, register yourself, put yourself up there as an expert, and then you’ll be there. We make sure that as we continue to improve it and upgrade it and make it better, we’ll always do that for you. We welcome feedback. The second area is I always have felt with online that as powerful as it is, without having a really strong offline element, it’s really difficult. We need physical interaction, so I really wanted to make sure that these events that we have done here in Santa Monica, that we have every city to have these types of events. To digress for a second, it was funny with the giving wall because after about five of our events, we said, “This is great. We’re going to get rid of all the post-it notes because we have this great giving wall and it’s going to be more sustainable and more environmentally friendly, and we’re going to put it all online. Isn’t it fantastic?” Then we had a revolt because people love the colored sticky notes. I think we crave to be close to other people, once we got into the comfort level that those people are not going to harm us. By creating an environment where it’s a soft landing as a business, where you can go to and not feel intimidating, it’s really good. So, it’s really important to me that every city that we have this, that there’s a local community leader, that the local community leader realizes that these are not paid events, these are not profit events; these are events for the local community by the local community. They would go, then, alongside the online platform as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Brian, for our business owners out there that are thinking about exhibiting at the Green Festivals, what words of wisdom do you have for them in terms of interacting with and getting visibility at the Green Festivals? BRIAN MCMAHON: I would have two answers. I would say to everybody out there, they should come to the Green Festival. I brought my eight-year-old boy today. It’s beautiful just to see the minds at that early age start to be molded. Once we get to my age, we’re lost already. It’s hard for us to adapt and to change. Even if we like something, it’s an entire education. But by having your kids there, we almost have a social responsibility to bring our young ones there and have those people realize the impact on the planet from doing stuff which is just stupid, and which can be changed really easily. That’s just on a basic human level. For the price of entry, which is virtually nothing, there’s every single possible aspect of green business you could imagine. I think it’s great for the family and for the kids. From a business perspective, green is changing the world. We look at the stocks which are in energy stocks. They’ve doubled over the last couple of years. We look at the entire change that we have within cars, Tesla, the golden child for everybody in the car industry right now. This is not a fluffy thing that’s on the periphery of business; this is the future of business, not just here but all over the world. I think if anybody is serious about doing business in their own sector, they need to be at the event. They need to look at the businesses that are at the event. They need to look at their competitive advantage, and they need to look at it from two perspectives. Number one, how can I improve my business without destroying my business? How can I improve it without spending a lot of money to actually make it greener? A lot of those things are actually really simple things to do. The second thing is which ones of my competitors are actually making a bigger noise in the green area than I am, and actually getting more customers from it? The summary is come. Why not? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Come one, come all. Come as business, and also come as a family. That’s great, Brian. Brian, we thank you for your time today. We thank you also for being such a visionary to create Pay It Forward Labs. For our listeners out there, go to payitforwardlabs.com. Brian McMahon, you are truly living proof that green is good. BRIAN MCMAHON: Thank you, sir. Pleasure being here.