Sheldon Cohn: “Pad your projected timeline”

I named the app Need Anything because in every alert sent out by the shopper the alert simply says: Do you need anything from Walgreens? Having the app name Need Anything also creates advance brand awareness. Unlike brands like Yahoo or Yelp, the name says it all. Changing the world was never my intention, but it […]

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I named the app Need Anything because in every alert sent out by the shopper the alert simply says: Do you need anything from Walgreens? Having the app name Need Anything also creates advance brand awareness. Unlike brands like Yahoo or Yelp, the name says it all.

Changing the world was never my intention, but it would be great if that happened. No matter how much e-commerce grows, brick-and-mortar locations will exist forever. My app allows integration between our connected world and our need to stock up on supplies. It also allows people to remain connected so that one can do a good deed while the person asking doesn’t feel like a pain for putting in a request.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheldon Cohn.

After getting a BA in film at the University of Michigan, Sheldon started working at Doner advertising in Detroit in 1978 as a TV commercial producer. After producing and writing multiple award-winning commercials for various clients such as Minute Maid, Mazda, 7-Eleven and the Blockbuster chain. He left in 1991 and went on to co-write and produce a feature film comedy called the pickle recipe which played in theaters and festivals around the world and had a 95% audience rating on rotten tomatoes. At the same time, he invented. The inventions were the exquisite relaxx reclining mug and the clothes tower which doesn’t use hangers. He also founded NeedAnything a Unique mobile app that connects a shopper with friends to alert them they were in a store and ask if they need anything. He’s also writing a book of funny children stories and has worked on numerous nonprofit videos. He’s been married for 30 years to Barbara and his two sons, Jonathan and Jeremy. He lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Only one story? My career path has definitely zigged and zagged along the way. If I had to choose the moment I knew the career path I’d take, I’d say it was when my parents treated me to a fairly sophisticated Super 8 camera for my 13th birthday. I became fascinated with the process of filmmaking. Action films, comedy films, vacation footage, time-lapse footage, I loved it all and I tried to create visual snippets of everything I experienced or envisioned.

Sadly, that camera came to a tragic end under the tires of my father’s car. But I was hooked on filmmaking. I loved the creative process. So much so that I graduated with a film degree from the University of Michigan. I then spent a good chunk of my career as a producer and writer for Detroit advertising agency Doner. I’ve made TV commercials around the world and my bragging rights include winning every major advertising industry award.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the more interesting campaigns I worked on was a pro-bono commercial for the Detroit Zoo back in the 1980s. It was a challenge since the Zoo had a lot of competition from amusement parks.

My partner John DeCerchio and I kept brainstorming ideas. Some were a little naughty, some just didn’t work. Finally, we came up with the idea of presenting the animals as if they were Broadways stars nervous before their next big performance. It wasn’t an easy sell, but we knew it was the right angle.

We were then presented with the challenge of getting zoo animals to look interesting. We filmed them for two full days doing whatever it is zoo animals do. We also recorded over a hundred lines from actors in Detroit and pulled together the footage of the animals with the voiceovers. Please remember that this was way before the era of the DVR. It was such a massive hit that over the Christmas season people called the TV stations asking when the commercial would air.

It was an early viral hit, and over 30 zoos around the country customized the commercial for their own zoos. My commercial won multiple awards and is featured in the Detroit Historical Society Museum as one of Detroit’s classic commercials. Decades later people can still recite a lot of the lines word for word.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I’ve noticed over the years that my desire to create and keep creating led to some of my best ideas. But you have to go beyond creativity. Everyone might have an idea or inspiration, but you need to channel that creativity to come up with solutions that are out of the box. That’s what’s really needed to be a success, understanding how to meld creativity with the right execution.

My philosophy about what I do is best summed up by the screenwriter William Goldman, best known for The Princess Bride. He put it really well when he said, “Nobody knows nothing.” He was probably half-joking, but it’s true. Even some of the most well-funded blockbusters starring A-Listers have bombed. Even Steven Spielberg’s had quite a few career disasters. Your best intentions don’t always succeed, but you learn and move on to the next opportunity.

Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

As a lifelong creative, I keep coming up with ideas that will change people’s day-to-day lives and by extension the world. Sometimes those aren’t the earth-shattering ideas as much as the ones we all need. I’m a problem solver, so much in the way that my app provided a solution, two of my other inventions provided immediate solutions to annoying problems.

My first invention was motivated by my hate/hate relationship with clothes hangers. I find it the most annoying thing on earth to constantly have to put clothing back on hangers, it’s so much easier to just toss them on the floor. So, I had an idea that I called a clothes tower. I worked with freelance industrial designer and created a device where you can use hooks on a simple mechanism and it only takes seconds to put your clothes away. The hanger looks and works the same way it has for 150 years, but with my invention messy rooms and closets have finally met their match.

My other invention was motivated by laziness. I hated having to sit up from a reclining position to drink my cup of coffee in the morning. I worked with a ceramic professional to design a mug you can drink from while reclining. It’s an of-the moment invention since so many of us are sheltering at home and spending more time hanging out with family. Which leads me to the really big invention, my app Need Anything (ADD WHERE YOU CAN PURCHASE IT AND FOR HOW MUCH).

The way Need Anything works is that when the user walks into a store, the app instantly alerts people they’ve pre-selected asking if they need anything from said store. It then helps them choose items and shop for themselves and others. In addition to providing shopping insights, it allows them to be a decent human being by helping others in their circle. Need Anything ultimately helps stores increase sales because people are not only shopping for themselves, they’re shopping for others.

The idea actually came to me a number of years ago. Before the pandemic, when my wife and I would come back from a store with a shopping bag, there was always a moment of recrimination. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going there?” Or “I needed X, Y or Z. Now I’ll have to make another trip to the store.” It happened constantly. That’s when inspirations struck. I was at the pharmacy and thought to myself, “Should I call my wife?” Nope. She never answers. “Should I text her?” Nah. I really don’t feel like it. But then it occurred to me-Why can’t my phone just tell her I’m here? I had to figure out a way to simply let my phone send her a signal to let her know I was at the drugstore. This way if she needed anything, there didn’t have to be endless back and forth.

Since my wife never answered her phone and I was too lazy to text her, the idea for this app was born. No matter how many shopping lists you make, someone always forgets something. And now with the pandemic so many people are staying in. More than ever, delivery of groceries has risks and extra fees, and additional car trips contribute more pollution to the environment and additional costs. This app just makes sense.

I named the app Need Anything because in every alert sent out by the shopper the alert simply says: Do you need anything from Walgreens? Having the app name Need Anything also creates advance brand awareness. Unlike brands like Yahoo or Yelp, the name says it all.

How do you think this will change the world?

Changing the world was never my intention, but it would be great if that happened. No matter how much e-commerce grows, brick-and-mortar locations will exist forever. My app allows integration between our connected world and our need to stock up on supplies. It also allows people to remain connected so that one can do a good deed while the person asking doesn’t feel like a pain for putting in a request.

I like to imagine every time someone goes out shopping, it changes the dynamic of the experience because of how simply it notifies family members or relatives and helps them. And with the pandemic, we have a new normal for shopping and that means less people in stores at any given times. It’s also helpful in rural areas where the shopping trip is a big deal and the stores are far away. In other countries where the price of gas is so much more expensive, shopping trips aren’t a given any more. And let’s face it, with climate change being a real concern and with people being so busy, the app will help save both the planet and time.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Black Mirror taps into our greatest fears and magnifies it. We worry because of the exaggerated parts, but it isn’t true to life as we know it. What I’m trying to do is just the opposite, I’m easing the burden of modern life for people who want to help but feel overwhelmed at times. This makes it easier to help others.

I can’t honestly think of the ways it could be a no go. The app will always be free, so even price won’t be an issue. To become a major app with millions of downloads is an exceedingly difficult thing. Competition is fierce and people are on overload. Maybe they have too many apps so they won’t download mine. Or maybe one of the big industry players will come out with the same type of app and mine will be history. Also, as I mentioned before, my motto is nobody knows nothing. If I could predict how an app would succeed in the marketplace, I’d be a pretty valuable person.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Due Diligence: Always do your due diligence before hiring somebody to perform a task. I actually had the app built twice. The first company did a terrible job. I was given the company name by a friend who had the company build their website…and my friend’s company is going bankrupt, so maybe not the person I should have been asking for referrals. I should have researched instead of simply trusting the referral.

2. Pad your projected timeline: No matter how long you think something is going to take- it will always take longer. And if you’re building an app, coding and testing will take even more time. Need Anything went through several iterations and we had many problems along the road. Since I wasn’t the one developing the app, I had to wait around hoping to see progress.

3. Execution is everything: I mentioned this earlier, but what makes an idea rise above is the execution. This app is the first one I created with my own concept, but the process was entirely new to me. There are also so many surprises along the way simply because you don’t know what you don’t know.

4. Be aware of your weaknesses: I’m very aware of one of my weaknesses, which is the fact that I’m not adept at the business side of a startup. In every previous venture, including advertising, my focus was on creating the idea and having a gut feeling how it should work. I would delegate activities to others who were good at what they do. Learn to admit what you’re not good at and compensate for it by hiring people who can make you shine.

5. Create something great: If you’re going to be remembered for something, make it impactful. Who wants to be remembered as the person who filled the world with more junk?

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

When I started in my career, I did not have the best people skills. I was too demanding and worse yet, I did not give enough praise when someone did a good job. One day someone confronted me about it, and I realized that because I’d never received the right kind of feedback, I was unable to offer it. I then shifted my entire approach and changed how I worked with others. You can be great at what you do and still not work well with others. Fix it so that your company works well, or it will work against you.

There is one specific thought that constantly is with me when I’m working on a project. I constantly wonder what I can do to make it better. And I expect the same of the people I work with.

And don’t get too attached to ideas. A good idea doesn’t always mean a good product.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Think of the last time you went to the store. Did you ask your spouse or friend if they needed anything before you left? Did you call or text them from the road or the store? Or did you come home and hear “I can’t believe you went to the store without telling me.”

Need Anything is a free mobile app that is timely, easy to use and something people need without realizing it. It’s a problem solver; It might even be a relationship solver!

It’s also uncomplicated. After selecting the store, the user then selects the contacts they want to notify. When the app user arrives at the store, the contacts immediately and automatically receive an alert asking them if they need anything. The person receiving the alert does not need to have the app installed.

Not only does it help the shopper and others, it also helps the store increase sales since the shopper may be shopping for others while they shop for themselves. The app will be important for almost every bricks and mortar location, it allows a trusted friend instead of a stranger to choose their products. And by decreasing car trips it also helps save the planet.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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