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Passion, People and Principles

Two Entrepreneurs

post # 169 — August 23, 2006 — a Careers, Strategy post

I have just published two profiles of entrepreneurs who exemplify how disruptive and revolutionary a true commitment to client service and business principles can be.

In the first article, An Innovative Law Firm, 29-year-old Christopher Marston launches his own law firm, convincing all new hires (from a recent graduate to a 30-year veteran bank executive) to defer compensation until his experimental model pays off.

On his blog, Marston wrote: “Most attorneys I know are not happy. The opportunity to build a firm that can be a win for the attorneys by creating a great work environment and at the same time be a win for clients who are endlessly disappointed with law firm service and billable hours is what drives me to get up every day and do what I do. People who think Exemplar is about a pricing model have missed the point. Exemplar is about changing lives … one by one … until we’re all done!” He plans to have 24 people in the firm by year’s end.

(This article first appeared under the title “The Courage to Innovate,” as the introduction to the inaugural issue of Innovaction, an online journal celebrating innovation in the practice of law published by the College of Law Practice Management.)

* * *

In the second article, An Entrepreneurial Journey, software services engineer Geoff Considine retraces his career, reflecting on how he built “Maisterisms” into building his own successful firm. Geoff feels these are the most important guidelines that he has learned — often inspired, he says, by my work:

  • Be worthy of trust.
  • Everyone knows that you are smart — don’t try to prove it.
  • You are there to help, not to be right.
  • Be a concierge – if it needs doing, do it.
  • Develop services and products that are worth paying a premium price for.
  • Do business as if you were working with a good friend –

(An Entrepreneurial Journey was first published as a feature article at PSVillage.com )

If you would like to be emailed automatically when I add future full-length articles to the site (or know of anyone else that would benefit), I invite you (or them) to sign up for my (free) article email list.


David (Maister) said:

Should be working now.

posted on August 23, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:

David A (slightly) left-field comment about entrepreneurship and true professionalism Far East-style. I was once being invited to a huge Chinese banquet in Hong Kong. It was a celebratory event hosted by one of the world’s largest (Chinese) businesses, and the guests were the who’s who of the Asian business world. But I must come clean: I was just a replacement for a more senior colleague and I would not have gotten anywhere near this high-powered event had it not been for his unavoidable, last minute pull-out. I was seated at the no.1 table (the table number is an important measure of status, and precisely where on the table one sits is another). There must have been close to 20 tables in banquet hall, each with between 12 and 15 people on them. I sat next to the CEOs of two large listed companies and spent the next few hours making polite conversation about children, golf, aging, living in other countries and taxes! But here’s the relevant point for the post – the no.2 person on this table (and therefore at the whole banquet) had just sold his personal shareholding in a company he owned to the company hosting the banquet, increasing his already very substantial net worth many times over. Needless to say, he was an incredibly wealthy, well-connected and powerful individual. Yet, when I arrived at the banquet room, this man welcomed me like his long lost friend – and I exaggerate not … First, he spotted me entering the large banquet hall and walked towards me with a huge smile and an eager outstretched hand. It looked like he had just broken-off his conversation with someone else upon seeing me (making me feel like I was the only person in the room!). Second, as he grasped my hand in both of his he called me “Peter” though we had never met before (I still don’t know whether he had simply looked at my name tag or remembered my name from the seating plan for the table – or did someone tell him just before he sprang into action?). Third, he told me repeatedly how pleased he was that I could join them. His enthusiasm seemed genuine, as far as I could tell. Fourth, he guided me to my seat, and as I recall introduced me to some other VIPs as we went (I can’t recall whether he held my arm all the way, or whether I’m now just being romantic!). I had no idea I would be attending this banquet until earlier in the day, so the way I was treated was totally unexpected (and clearly had more to do with the standing of my colleague than with me!). But the impression left on me of that night, and of this powerful individual in particular, may well last a lifetime. It was subsequently explained to me that this gentleman had made his fortune in the textile industry a few decades earlier. He was well known as one of the ‘old style’ entrepreneurs of Hong Kong who did all their deals with nothing more than a handshake and who refused to accept windfall gains unless it was clear that they were entitled to them (and would equally accept incredible losses if they considered it necessary to preserve the principles by which they lived). I don’t know what this man thought he could gain by treating me like royalty at that banquet, or whether he thought of this at all. Maybe it was nothing more than masterful charm. There was certainly nothing I could realistically have given him that would increase his welfare in any way, apart from lamely saying, “Thank you so much for inviting me!” Even today I still believe he was genuinely pleased to see me, and I also like to think this is all that mattered to him. He had been an incredibly successful entrepreneur for many years – and in just a few minutes he demonstrated to me what true professionalism can mean even in the smallest moments of life. Peter

posted on August 23, 2006

David (Maister) said:

A powerful exoerience and story, Peter.

Do you think you have to be born that way, or can you learn to behave that way without phoniness? I will confess that my own reaction is one of utter admiration, but also one of “I couldn’t do that – it’s just not my socisl style or psychology.”

if people see the benefits early enough, can “non-naturals” learn the importance , the attitude, the skill and the behavior?

Many people who “teach” or “train” professionals in marketing and sales in the US, and Europe, aretrying to teach people to behave this way, but I don’t know what the success rate is.

There are many things you can admire, and wish to be able to do, but cannot. Or is that a cop-out?

What’s your experience, Peter? Did you change a lot?

What’s everyone else’s experience on the ability of people to learn from shining examples like this?

posted on August 23, 2006

Bruce Lewin said:

Hi David, the link to the article email list doesn’t work :-(

posted on August 23, 2006

David (Maister) said:

We’re on it! Watch this space

posted on August 23, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

Peter – this is a great story. (Did he mistake you for your colleague? – only joking.) Such an experience would certainly stick with me for life as well.

David – It must be easier if you are inherently interested in other people. However, I think you can learn to be genuinely interested in others and to treat them like this. An often misunderstood book by Dale Carnegie, (which I’m sure you’ve read) is all about this – How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale is actually saying the same thing as you – if you are principled in your actions and beliefs and you are interested in and help others, then it actually happens to be good for business.

Also – back to the original post. Just to be difficult where is the evidence of disruption by these two example entrepreneurs? (I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I think they both sound impressive.)

Finally, while I’m on the soap box, I read somewhere (Innovaction?) that Exemplar is targetting small and medium sized clients first – I think they are underselling themselves – and they will have their work cut out for them to come back from the positioning this creates.

posted on August 24, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I’m a huge Dale Carnegie Fan, Duncan. After him, who runs second in being truly helpful on such topics?

posted on August 24, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

I’m not sure that Dale or anyone runs first. Rather, various people such as Dale have provided invaluable insights, as you are clearly doing. Stephen Covey is another – his relatively recent Eighth habit being an interesting twist on the concept of helping other people.

The interesting thing is that the underlying concepts are not new by any stretch of the imagination (eg. see King Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs, nearly 3000 years ago). But implementing them is very difficult. I understand that Covey’s latest work is on just that – systematising implementation – it will be interesting to see whether this actually works in practice.

David – what would you recommend that people read on this topic?

posted on August 24, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:


The one word that comes to mind is “gracious” – but as to how (or whether) such a trait can be taught or learned, I have no real idea.

This particular experience impressed upon me the importance of small things – and of doing them right. And of being generous (even overly generous) with my time and attention towards others.

Is seems to be the opposite of self-centredness – and yet as you have noted many times before, the key to getting our own needs met.

Maybe the very wealthy can afford to cultivate a generous spirit, since they live in a virtuous circle of plenty. On the other hand, they are also human and I am sure subject to pressures and constraints of their own.

C’mon David, I am sure you must have some further ideas to help us with this one.


posted on August 24, 2006

Allan Freeman said:


I found the story about Christopher Marston and his law firm interesting and very relevant. It seems to me that whilst he is travelling in that direction, in the UK, many if not most marketing services organisations are travelling in the opposite direction.

The trend over the last few years is more and more for time based charging in a way linked to the legal and maximising hours culture that Christopher Marston is trying to move away from.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the lack of growth in UK marketing services and I also think this charging approach leads to very different client and supplier connections- it feels more temporary and less like a relationship?

Any views?

posted on August 28, 2006

Stever Robbins said:

I believe that treating everyone equally can be learned. It’s a matter of learning to see beyond the titles, money, and power to the person.

I’ve found two useful paths for eliminating 1-down behavior when you’re around the rich and powerful:

First, disillusionment. I’ve now met enough Rich, Powerful, Famous people to realize that they’re just people. I used to put them on pedestals until working for several and discovering that they aren’t even necessarily good at what they do. Money/power/etc. is as much about luck as it is about the person’s contribution to the situation.

(And as an ex-HBS professor, you surely have ample examples. Some of your colleagues have gone on to run Fortune 500 companies. And you know how inept they are! :-))

Second, being present. Put your attention on the present moment. Ted Turner may be a billionaire, but right now, he’s standing here talking to me. Outside our little group of two, he may be different, but right now, it’s just two people talking.

If you treat lower-status people poorly:

This one’s really easy to get over, if you seriously want to: go live with a bus driver or construction worker for a month. You’ll come to learn that they’re fine people, with valid concerns, worth listening to.

But don’t believe it’s your nature to succumb to hierarchy behavior. That’s simply avoiding responsibility for making the decision not to do what it takes to get over the issues. Your nature is to sit in a cave, picking lice out of your mates hair, and eating animals raw. You had no problem accepting that you can move past that “nature,” I have faith you’ll find a way to move past this as well.

posted on September 4, 2007