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Book Review

Defy Gravity: Propel Your Business to High-Velocity Growth

Rebel Brown's book Defy Gravity

There are those who can write and then are those who can "really" write. Rebel Brown belongs to the latter category. I was introduced to Rebel Brown last year by our common buddy Ardath Albee. In the last year, I have not only had the pleasure of getting to know Rebel but also being amazed at how she can put her thoughts (on marketing, business and life in general) into writing (in such crystal clear fashion).

Today, I am very excited to bring to you Rebel Brown's new book Defy Gravity: Propel Your Business to High-Velocity Growth. Rebel Brown is a go-to-market strategist and Spin Doctor specializing in start ups, turnarounds and start-arounds in the high technology arena. She has helped to define, position and launch over 100 individual products and companies since she began consulting 20 years ago. Her clients who are technology vendors and venture firms leverage her strategic marketing and go-to-market expertise. She identifies and transforms differentiation - customer's crown jewels - into compelling, customer-centric value that sells.

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Ambal Balakrishnan: Rebel, it is a great pleasure to discuss your book Defy Gravity. Thanx for finding time out of your very busy schedule this "book launch" week to provide your valuable insights to our readers. Tell us about your consulting practice?
Rebel Brown: I’ve been a consultant for over 20 years now, focused on helping international clients in areas of business and market strategy, positioning and market launches. My clients range from early stage start-ups to corporate turnarounds to small businesses.  I help them define their best opportunities for growth and devise go-to-market strategies. Then I generally stay  involved as an advisor  to help and make sure that their execution is a success.  Before I was a consultant, I was as a sales rep selling big systems  and networks against IBM -  and then I moved into the UNIX industry to help put UNIX into the enterprise. 

Ambal Balakrishnan: Give us the background of how you gained an interest in Marketing.
Rebel Brown: I have degrees in marketing and business.  Loved it from the moment I took my first class in college. The idea of spinning stories and mapping product value to audience needs intrigued me.   After school,  an executive recruiter  suggested I go into sales as my first career -to learn the outside view of business  - before I went  into corporate  marketing.   So I sold technology for the first six or seven years of my career.   In my last sales role, I sold more of our high ticket product in my first six months than any other representative  usually sold in a year. When they asked me how I did it, I laid out my target marketing campaigns.  The next thing I knew, I was running marketing for that product.  I never looked back.

Ambal Balakrishnan: What prompted you to embark on creating your book ‘Defy Gravity’?
Rebel Brown: I realized that with virtually every client, I was dealing with the same challenges in thinking and planning, before we could focus on the project objectives.  It didn’t matter if it was an early stage or small business, or my largest corporate clients. The issues I saw were caused by status quo thinking, the Gravity that holds us in the past and the way we’ve always done it.  As humans we are Natural Born Gravity Machines.  We get stuck in seeing things the way we’ve always seen them,  doing things the way we’ve always done it – because it's safe and comfortable and we like that. But that’s what gets us in a mess over time.

So I decided to write Defy Gravity.  I took the same principles and processes that I used to help my own clients and packaged them within the book -  it’s a different kind of strategy book  that includes the concepts and logic,  as well as case studies and examples, questions and exercises.

My goal  with Defy Gravity is to help everyone think differently about their business beliefs and knowns – to find and capitalize on new opportunities for growth. Defy Gravity is designed to help readers learn to release their Gravity – those beliefs that hold them down.  Once we learn to release Gravity, we then  focus on finding our true value, mapping that to realistic market opportunities, creating a flight plan (including waypoints to manage progress) and away we go!

The book isn’t a typical strategy book. I usually finish those and say, “Now what do I do?”  I didn’t want Defy Gravity to be that way.  That’s why it includes case studies, exercises, questions and templates -  to help everyone apply the lessons to their own business.

Ambal Balakrishnan: What a fun name “Defy Gravity”…how did you come up with it?
Rebel Brown: My initial name for the book was Phoenix Rising.  But when I tested that found that people thought it was all  about a turnaround scenario -  and only a turnaround scenario.   While the book does apply to turnarounds,  it applies to a much broader set of business situations.   So I didn’t want to limit it.

I was searching for another title and I read what had become my favorite line in the book proposal.
We can learn to soar the changeable winds that power our markets - riding the updrafts while steering clear of the downers, leveraging our lift and sometimes, defying gravity.

That’s when it hit me -  Defy Gravity.   I was already playing with the flight analogy around Phoenix Rising,  so it was the perfect  solution.   I had the perfect title  all along  right there in that favorite sentence in the  proposal,  that was stuck in my own Gravity -  called Phoenix Rising.   When I  presented Defy Gravity my publisher was ecstatic  and the rest is history!   I’m glad you liked the title because I love it!!

Ambal Balakrishnan: Please walk us through the book writing life-cycle from concept to launch?
Rebel Brown: I wrote this book in a little over two months – so there wasn’t a lot of life cycle from a writing standpoint.   I did have quite the cycle in the publishing framework  however.   That’s another bit of Rebel’s personal gravity we can chat about.

Originally I wanted to self publish,  so that I could keep control of my content in the book itself. But then everyone around me said I needed a New York agent and publisher to have a successful first book.  So I listened to their advice and secured  an agent.  But as we took the book out to publishers -  my agent and the publishers who were interested wanted to change a lot of things about Defy Gravity that I didn’t like.  They didn’t want this book – they wanted a tactical book on sales and marketing.   That wasn’t my passion. So I drew the line and said no – and they fired me.  Wow, that was a shock.

But later, after the shock wore off, I’ve  come to realize it was the best thing that could have happened.  I was stuck in the status quo, following the past rules – instead of challenging that same status quo that I wanted to write about.  A friend of mine, Scott McKain, introduced me to Clint Greenleaf and Greenleaf Book Group and the rest is history. 

As I said I wrote the book in little over two months,  from November 2009 through mid-January 2010. I outlined the content, went through that outline with my editor and then wrote the book. I think it was fast because I’m writing about the same things I’ve done in my client and career for over twenty years – so it came quickly.   I’ve also written another book on the personal front – so I had some experience on how to structure and write a book.

After that there was another two months of editing and proofing, then the custom book layout and design, as well as creating the cover.  We had Advanced Review Copies in April, but we didn’t quite make the spring mix for the book sales.   So we decided to hold the book until fall - since summer is not exactly a great time to launch a business book.

All in all that I started with my publisher a month earlier, the book would have been out in the spring.  But I’m happy with the timing, and I have learned so much from the overall experience. The next book will be even better - and yes I already know what that one is.

Ambal Balakrishnan: Who is ‘Defy Gravity’ addressed towards?
Rebel Brown: One of the things I most proud of about the book is that it’s written for anyone in business.  I’ve had executives of large corporations and my friends who own small businesses all read it and love the lessons.  That was my goal – to share my experiences in a way that they were immediately available and usable by any business person.  As a result, Defy Gravity is every person’s guide to challenging their status quo.  Because once we challenge our beliefs and knowns –the sky is the limit. 

By the way, one of the things that early reviewers are saying is that the book has something of value for everyone.   That’s the biggest compliment they could have given me, because that’s exactly what I set out to do -  help everyone I possibly could touch with the book.

Ambal Balakrishnan: How is the business landscape different than what it was a decade back?
Rebel Brown: It’s a whole new world in the last six months, forget the last decade.  That’s the main point of Defy Gravity.  Everything around us changes, faster now than ever before. Our world is moving so fast, thanks to the internet and social media.  Markets rise (and fall) overnight, customer needs advance and change, and competitors fall away or appear out of nowhere.  The landscape changes daily – and if we don’t change the way we think about our business in a conscious and continuous way, we will be left behind.  That’s what Defy Gravity is designed to help you do - to think differently about your business so that you can stay in sync with, or preferably ahead of, your markets.

Ambal Balakrishnan: You have an entire section dedicated to High-Velocity Growth. Give us an example of a business that you have seen go through high-velocity growth by doing all the right things.
Rebel Brown: There are so many examples.  I have a number of videos on my RebelationsTV channel that describe them if anyone would care to check them out.   I call these kinds of leaders Zero Gravity Businesses – and we can all learn from them.

So to pick one – let’s look at Jet Blue.   They did what everyone thought was impossible.  They created a profitable, high-growth airline in the midst of an economic downturn.  How’s that for Zero Gravity!

Jet Blue was founded in 1999 and launched their first flight in March 2000. They had served over 1M customers by 12/2000. In their first 2 years they served 5M customers and boasted a $55M in net income for 2002.   If you’ll remember, that’s the same timeframe as when most of the other airlines were going into bankruptcy.   Why did they win?   For JetBlue, it was all about customer service.   Consequently, they were also named Best US Airline by Conde Nast Traveler Readers for the 2nd year running.

JetBlue’s innovative customer-focused approach to travel continues to power their growth.

In Q1 2010 JetBlue reported record first quarter revenues of $870 million despite severe winter storms in the Northeast, which reduced revenue by an estimated $15 million.  They did have a net loss for the first quarter of $1 million, but it’s not for the reasons you  might think.  They spent $15 million in that same quarter on an improved customer reservation and service system.  Pay attention to that. They invested in customer service even as the rest of the industry was contracting spending and charging for services.  Now that’s a Zero Gravity approach.

But they went further than investing.  They offered programs designed to help their customers in all aspects of travel.  For example, the JetBlue Promise Program, which guarantees that that if you lose your job, they'll refund your fare.

That customer service focus continues to create big time Velocity for JetBlue.  In Q2 2010, JetBlue reported record second quarter revenues of $939 million. Pre-tax income for the quarter was $51 million. This compares to pre-tax income of $36 million in the second quarter of 2009.

JetBlue is a super example of a Zero Gravity business. They didn’t let airline industry Gravity and they they’d always done it keep them down. They focused forward on their customers’ needs. Today – they are setting record revenue with each quarter, growing and investing in their future. 

Ambal Balakrishnan: What is one change you recommend for businesses to do better when it comes to “Defying Gravity”
Rebel Brown: Question everything you believe is true.  Some of your knowns will in fact be valid – so hold onto them. But ditch the beliefs whose time has come. Be open, constantly think out of the box – look for ways to do things differently and better.

And above all else – outlaw two phrases: “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” and “But we can’t.” Ditch those and you’ve taken a huge step forward out of Gravity!

Ambal Balakrishnan: What are the 2 key lessons you want readers to take away from your book?
Rebel Brown:

  1. The way we’ve always done it is the reason for the mess we’re in.  If you want to succeed, you have to be dynamic.
  2. Nothing you do that follows a competitor will ever make you a market leader.  So stop watching the other guys and start following your customers and prospects, in current and emerging markets. 
    Ambal Balakrishnan: Can you recommend 3-5 resources (books, blogs).
    Rebel Brown: Wow- that’s a tough one. I read so much. As to books - I’m into The Red Bat these days – a great little book about applying Quantum Physics to turning problems into solutions.   Then there’s Career Moves, a fabulous book that everyone should read before they take another step in their careers. Another is Guy Finley’s just released book – The Courage to be Free – great lessons for our personal selves and our businesses. 

    As for blogs – I’m a bigtime follower of Harvard Business Review and Rosabeth Moss Kanter and  Umair Haque .  They call it like they see it and I love the way these two think.

    Ambal Balakrishnan: What kind of projects (both personal and professional) are you involved in when you are not blogging, speaking or consulting?
    Rebel Brown: Right now I’m so focused on this book launch as to be a bit single-minded. I’m busy creating systems and training solutions that will help small businesses and entrepreneurs apply the lessons and Defy Gravity to their own situations.  I’m also working on another book (actually two) on the personal side of life. 

    And then there are my horses.  My working cow horse, Pearli Girl, is off at finishing school right now.  We’re ramping up to begin showing her as a performance horse next spring.    My Morgan, Shadow, and I were trail riding a lot (when I can get out of the office which hasn’t been a lot the last few days) and we have a couple of more horse camping trips planned for the season.  And there’s Maverick, my unadoptable, untrainable, untouchable Mustang who came to my trainer is part of a charity effort to raise money for abused horses.   The idea was to show folks what could be done with these horses with a little bit of love. He was horribly abused, rescued from one of the most horrendous situations imaginable, 200 horses in a paddock big enough for 50, starving and sick.  Surrounded by 80 dead carcasses of those who had already starved.  I can’t even watch the video it’s so horrible. He was so terrified when we first got him that no one could get within 10 feet of him.  Well, he took a liking to me after the first week, so I adopted him and he’s now like a puppy dog.  He follows me everywhere.  We go for trail rides and for walks in the grass.  He is such a blessing and inspiration to me, such trust from one who’d been so hurt.   Other than the horses, once the snow flies, it’s ski season! I’ll be finding as many opportunities to hit the slopes that I can.  I love steeps and deeps!  And I mustn’t forget Mr. Diego - my furry Keeshond child.   He is with me every step of the way.   He’s lying on my feet as we do this interview.

Ambal Balakrishnan: Rebel, thanks for taking the time to discuss your book Defy Gravity. Good luck with the book launch.
Rebel Brown: Thanks Ambal.

Over to you...

As a thank you for supporting the launch of Defy Gravity, Rebel is offering the companion workbook for FREE to those who secured their copy of the book ONLY on Launch Day, Sept 14, 2010.  This is the same workbook she uses with her clients, edited to focus on the needs of a more general audience.  Click here for more information on how you can get your FREE Defy Gravity Workbook.

More Stories By Ambal Balakrishnan

Ambal has robust 17+ years experience working at and partnering with high-profile technology companies in both B2B and B2C marketplaces building scalable, reliable, high performance products (both hardware and software) for business with multi-billion dollar in annual revenue. She has done various roles that includes engineering, program management, business development, strategy and marketing for premium and fast growing product divisions at Cisco, Telecordia (prior name Bell Labs) and strategic marketing consulting firm ClickDocuments. At Cisco, she focused on world wide marketing and positioning of Cisco's Cloud & Data Center switching business. She brings both strong engineering & marketing skills with verticals experience from many different industries. Ambal received her Masters in Computer Science from Purdue University and an MBA in Marketing, Strategy and Entrepreneurship from Wharton University of Pennsylvania. Ambal is an avid reader and hiker. Her hiking pursuits have taken her to several mountains including Mt. Whitney at 14,500 feet (which she managed to climb in 1 day). Ambal lives in Austin, TX with her family of 3 boys (that includes her husband!) and a border-collie+lab mix dog named Rainbow.

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