After 21 Years In Business

I’m still a start-up

John Caswell
The A-Z Of Group Partners
15 min readNov 25, 2022


Building a business teaches you a whole bunch.

And right up there is one stand-out lesson — if you don't learn, you die. People will tell you the longer you stay with that start-up mentality, the better. They are right.

This post is in two halves.

  1. Twenty-one lessons (In no order) that got me to 21 years.
  2. The gems —a few of the brilliant quotations I've stumbled across.

Here’s what I know:

ONE — Learning is challenging — I had to learn each lesson two or three times before it was learned. I gave people the benefit of the doubt — more times than I should have. I would do things again that had previously failed. And sometimes they would work — eventually, I developed a knack for why — so another lesson learned. Work on the why.

TWO — Be flexible about your business model — It was never about making lots of money — so I succeeded with that one. I created plenty of challenges for myself — thankfully, clients paid me to solve theirs. I learned the best business model was whatever the client said it was.

THREE — Accept every mistake — I was always making the wrong hires. I can't even plead I made them for the right reason. I learned that to grow the business; I needed to shrink it. I learned to be successful; I had to figure out what business I was in. I’m still working on that. Mistakes always helped me.

FOUR — You’ve never cracked it — learning is perpetual. The times change — so must the business. Every proposal and every meeting is a rehearsal — an opportunity to hone your craft—every new business proposal is a reason to build a better approach. Treat each case as if it’s the first time. That freshness kept me alive. This is how I realised what business I was in and what my product was.

FIVE — Learn to write — It doesn’t matter if it's not great. It will improve very quickly. Writing does several things. It’s what you think. You will realise it’s not good enough. Especially when you read it out loud. It will reveal what you are not saying. You will be surprised how much you repeat yourself. Refinement will be an overwhelming requirement. Luckily it’s between you and the words — so you get to keep going before you let your audience see it.

SIX — Learn to ship — After a while, making stuff pays off exponentially. The workflow of making stuff pays off double exponentially. I made myself capable of doing as much of the overall workflow as possible. It wouldn't mean I had to do everything, but I could. Eventually, I had it down and could do many of the essential bits fast and at a high quality.

A client standing in front of the blueprint for the future of his company

SEVEN — Always outside in — Everyone will tell you — always put yourself in your customer's shoes. I looked at different industries and became curious about why some things worked, and others sucked. I saw how humility worked every time and how smugness or arrogance didn’t— every time. I realised that my product was tough to sell, and I had to make it easy for someone to buy.

EIGHT — Learn to story — After working with hundreds of c-level teams, there are many insights, but one always sticks out — the ability of the leaders to be fluent in their strategic story. Whether they feel they’re above it or nervous about holding the audience's attention or something else — many are not good. I learned that 100% of my role is about articulation. I also realised that 100% of my business was too.

NINE — Your client’s problem beats yours — Once the client challenge was in my head, being paid was way down the list of motivations to solve it. I am creative, so I enjoyed the problem-solving thing. The more ingenious I could be, the better. That would mean the client got there faster and with less complexity. We’ve always exceeded expectations; it never mattered if it didn’t generate more revenue. I learned a business loss would always repay its investment.

Senior leadership teams collaborate to create strategies and plans

TEN — Always putting more barges on the canal — When you are busy, make sure you’re still creating other opportunities. When I’m full of work, I always put more barges on the canal—slowly filling them up with value, input, energy and seeds for what’s to come.

ELEVEN — Never lose those you respect — In business and everywhere, trusted partnerships and friendships are life and death. Be nice. When you find partners, associates or suppliers who get you and get it, do everything you can to make that a lifelong relationship. Give more than you get. When it just feels right — then invest. It will never be about money — it will be far more valuable than that. Just care.

TWELVE — Business is ‘always on’ — Even though you’ll eventually lay on a beach or climb a mountain, maybe get to read a book — everything is framed by your business. Asleep, awake, it makes no never mind. If you aren’t obsessed with its evolution and making it the best it can be, you are no longer a start-up. That might be what you intended — but it never felt right (for me) to want to lose that spark. Oh, and retire? — retire from what?

THIRTEEN — Famous brands make a big difference — One of the greatest thrills was winning business from a global brand. A well-known and reputable client meant a lot when we started, and it still does. It signalled to other clients that we knew what we were doing. Their challenges were similar, but the stakes were much higher.

Just some of the incredible clients we’ve worked with

FOURTEEN — Treat every client as a famous brand — No matter the size or tenure of a client, I quickly learned that they’re all as important as each other. The challenges are pretty similar too. We have always put the same amount of effort into every client. No matter what they paid or how large they were.

FIFTEEN — Always cause events — Make things happen. Armed with the stuff I make (visual assets) and the writing I was happy with, I’ve used every tool, app, platform, stage and opportunity I stumbled across. I got to try out how to show up, how to avoid selling, and how to inspire discussion. And from those found hundreds of incredible people and resources. People who became friends and partners — fellow conspirators for change.

SIXTEEN — Stop when it offends your values — Occasionally, people just let you down. Disappear gracefully. Develop a sixth sense and trust your gut. I left Facebook over a decade ago, Twitter more recently when the rising stink of sewage overpowered my senses, and Instagram when the money and media became more important than the app's original purpose.

SEVENTEEN — Develop an obsession for insight. An insight is a jewel — it usually flies past you unnoticed — but when you tune in, they take your breath away. The minute I realised their importance, I searched for more.

“Let’s avoid solving the wrong problem really well.”

EIGHTEEN — Build the story on solid insight — l became an avid collector. I placed them on a pedestal — like a famous quotation, they took on a powerful status. There’s magic in them. Once identified, they change your course completely. They add up to your story.

NINETEEN — Put your money where your insight is — I remember saying this to a CEO nearly thirty years ago.

“It costs a lot to get your leadership team away from the office for a few days to imagine and plan the future. But it will cost you a lot more not to.”

I knew it was a risk as I was saying it. But I also knew it was true. He agreed. We went ahead. We did the retreat. He became a client.

TWENTY — Seek out the truth that changes everything — We were in full flight in a session with a client. It was going well; everyone was in the flow, and ideas emerging in the framework were starting to create a strategy that made sense. But then the CEO fell silent. Eventually, I paused the debate and asked the CEO why he was so quiet.

He said —

“Until this minute we were going to invest $12M doing the wrong thing. I would never have seen it.”

This was a big moment. It affirmed our technique but, importantly, taught me to be at peace with silence and pause. When you ask a question that causes complete silence, it’s good. It means people are thinking and have no standard answer — this is a success. Standard answers are often wrong answers.

TWENTY-ONE — Constantly refine the brand — In over 20 years of building a business, my most significant task is continually tweaking and refining the product. A big challenge is that we are not easily definable. We are different things to different people at different times and for various reasons. The company would not exist if we had one story that never changed.


Here are a few sentences I’ve saved over the years—several benefit from being read multiple times. Enjoy.

One Liners:

“Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?” — Charles Bukowski.

“We are driven into a wild rage by our luxurious lives so that whatever does not answer our whims arouses our anger.” — Seneca.

“The only reason we don’t find solutions to our problems is that the answers interfere with our concepts. “— Samuel Lewis.

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterise our age.” — Albert Einstein.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker.

“Things will get better — despite our efforts to improve them.” — Will Rogers.

“There is much to be said for failure; it is more interesting than success.” — Max Beerbohm.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” — Peter Drucker.

“Tell me, and I’ll forget; show me, and I may remember; involve me, and I’ll understand.” — Chinese Proverb.

“Whatever you can do or dream, you can — begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” — Goethe.

“We do not learn to know men through their coming to us. To find out what sorts of persons they are, we must go to them.” — Goethe.

“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” — Nicolo Machiavelli.

“Rather than cling to what we cannot keep, let us pursue what we cannot lose.” — President J. F. Kennedy.

“I’ve tried relaxing, but — I don’t know — I feel more comfortable tense.” — Hamilton.

“Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.” — Ogden Nash.

“Remember, nothing good works by itself to please you. You’ve got to make the damn thing work.” — Thomas A. Edison.

“An effective executive — ‘someone who can change the tires while the car is still rolling.’” — Jack Welch.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” — Lao-Tzu.

“Not failure, but low aim, is crime.” — James Russell Lowell.

“Running a company is easy when you don’t know how, but tough when you do.” — Price Pritchett.

“Nothing can be uninvented.” — Daniel J. Boorstin.

“Be nice, feel guilty, and play safe. If there ever was a prescription for producing a dismal future, that has to be it.” — Walter Wriston

“I make it a rule to believe only what I understand.” — Benjamin Disraeli

“Make every decision as if you owned the whole company.” — Robert Townsend

“The best way to eat the elephant standing in your path is to cut it up into little pieces.” — African Proverb.

“We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created the problems.” — Albert Einstein.

“A new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter.” — Lynn White.

Beyond The One Liner:

“Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business has two — and only two — basic functions; marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are “costs.” — Peter Drucker.

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which, once you have got it, you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.” — Garrison Keillor.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.” — John Kenneth Galbraith.

“The best people have sensitivity to beauty, the courage to take risks, the rigour of telling the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; are often wounds, sometimes destroyed.” — Ernest Hemingway.

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer.

“They did not expect a plan of operation to survive beyond the first contact with the enemy. They set only the broadest of objectives and emphasized seizing unforeseen opportunities as they arose. The strategy was not a lengthy action plan. It was the evolution of the central idea through constantly changing circumstances.” — Karl von Clausewitz.

“The real way to forge relationships with customers involves primarily providing them with more value in function than we ask for in price and more than the competitors can provide.” — Thomas V. Bonoma.

“Companies must learn to market, define and manage the entire company to create and satisfy the customer. Modern technology certainly provides decent tools. But the basic ingredient is not technology; it’s attitude.” — Peter Drucker.

“Incrementally fixing the old bureaucracy isn’t doing the job these days. What’s required are quantum ideas for products and services, as well as revolutionary changes in the organisation to produce them.” — Noel Tichy.

“The first questions in increasing productivity — and working smarter — have to be, ‘what is the task? What are we trying to accomplish? Why do it at all?’ The easiest, but perhaps also the greatest productivity gains in such work will come from defining the task and especially from eliminating what does not need to be done.” — Peter Drucker

“It’s the first company to build the mental position that has the upper hand, not the first company to make the product. IBM didn’t invent the computer, Sperry Rand did, but IBM was the first to build the computer position in the prospect’s mind.”— Al Ries

“The difference between marketing and selling is more than semantic. Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, and marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert his product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the customer using the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering and finally consuming it.” — Theodore Levitt.

“Many of our job designs, workflows, control/mechanisms, and organisational structures came of age in a different competitive environment and before the advent of the computer. They are geared towards efficiency and control. Yet the watch-words of the new decade are innovation and speed, service and quality.” — Michael Hammer.

“Many hands would group, Grove would choose one, and the communicant would say: ‘At Intel, you don’t wait for someone else to do it. You take the ball yourself, and you run with it.’ And Grove would say: ‘Wrong. At Intel, you take the ball yourself, let the air out, and fold the ball up and put it in your pocket. Then you make another ball and run with it, and when you’ve crossed the goal, you take the second ball out of your pocket, inflate it, and score twelve points instead of six.” — Andrew Grove.

“The conventional organisation of business was initially modelled after the military. The information-based system much more closely resembles the symphony orchestra. All instruments play the same score. But each plays a different part. They play together, but they rarely play in unison — in the orchestra; however, the score is given to both players and the conductor. In business, the score is written as it is being played. If the player has to know the score, there has to be a common language, a common core of unity.”— Peter Drucker.

“The great thing about people in the arts — musicians; maybe not dancers, because their knees go; artists; painters; so forth — there’s not construct like retirement… Retirement is basically a conspiracy. It came about as public policy when there was a workforce after the war that was unemployed. And making mischief. So they said, You know what? We gotta get these people jobs. Why don’t we invent this thing: we’ll call it retirement.” — Milton Glaser

“Do what you can to take people’s minds out of technology and into better serving the customer. I’ve had them try to sell me products I didn’t feel fit my organisation, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They need to do a better job of listening to the customer and not try to shove products down our throats. Our $25,000 RS 6000 computer has been excellent. But they’ve pushed a $300,000 system we don’t need.” — Mark Factor, IBM customer.

When asked what single event was most helpful in developing the theory of relativity Alert Einstein is reported to have answered — ‘figuring out how to think about the problem.”

“If you stand up and be counted, from time to time, you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.” — Thomas J. Watson. Jr.

“It would be beneficial if everyone in business could, to paraphrase the American Indian expression, walk a mile in their customer’s moccasins. The author once asked a man pumping gas at a filling station why his station was always so busy while the one across the street selling comparable gas at an identical price was almost always empty. This sage businessman replied, ‘They’re in a different business than us. They’re a fillin’ station — we’re a service station.’”— Norman R. Augustine.

“Fixing your objective is like identifying the North Star — you sight your compass on it and then use it as the means of getting back on the track when you tend to stray.” — Marshall E. Dimmock.

“Everyone can free associate, but society tends to frown on active fantasies. Beyond a certain age, we stop playing games, ‘let’s pretend,’ ‘what if,’ and all that. It goes on in your head anyway, but at some point, you start to feel guilty. You know, you listen to a symphony and imagine that you’re the conductor, and there you are, conducting like crazy, but then you get to be a grown man, and you say, ‘Gee, I’d hate for anybody to know that I’m pretending I’m conducting the symphony.’ But that kind of fantasy life is the real key to problem-solving at every level.” — Sydney Pollack.

“The dizzying options in office technology can obscure the critical components of information management — to serve the needs of the business. ‘Technology assessment departments’ are all well and good, but before making a decision, managers need to ask themselves: What will make our business successful? What are the upfront and ongoing costs? And — most important — what do my employees need to know to make this helpful technology; to them in their jobs?” — Brenton R. Schneider, In the Wall Street Journal, 6/12/87

“Paradigm, in its business connotation, is simply the conventional wisdom about how things have always been done and must continue to be done. A paradigm shifter throws out the game's rules and institutes radical, not incremental, change.” — John Huey.

“Most organisations reflect the uneasiness of transition, for they were built upon certain assumptions about man and his environment. The environment was thought to be placid, predictable, and uncomplicated. Organisations based on these assumptions will fail, if not today, then tomorrow. They will fail for the same reasons dinosaurs failed: The environment changes suddenly at the peak of their success.” — Warren Bennis.

“They displayed the characteristic of not just ‘having the answers’ but of ‘living in the question.’ They ask questions not merely to generate answers but to reveal what is possible. Rather than solve problems, they altered their relationship with problems to create more significant opportunities for themselves and their companies.” — Richard Tanner Pascal.

“The key to quality is in the standards we set and by which we are judged. The goal of quality is reached only in our striving for excellence. Standards, goals and the intensity of our pursuit define unchanging requirements which must be continually rediscovered.” — Hugh De Pree.



John Caswell
The A-Z Of Group Partners

I'm John Caswell - The founder and CEO of Group Partners. We Help Clients Make Strategies That Work. I’m The Head Of Crayons.