Share. In a play of mine from many years ago, an old man admonishes a young writer to “Get it out! Get it out!” dismissing the writer’s ideas as worthless unless he shares them with the world. Publish. Do a podcast. Give a lecture. You can’t be any kind of leader in a vacuum. You can’t even do it posthumously — because then you may be seen as a brilliant innovator, but you will have led no one. The “thought” in thought leader is cerebral and internal, private and personal, solitary and inscrutable. It’s necessary, but it’s only half the task at hand. The “leader” is the extrovert, gregariously gathering those who will listen to your augurs. If you’re too much of an introvert and you lack this generosity of spirit, you cannot ascend to be regarded as a thought leader. So just as your kindergarten teacher exhorted you to do: share!
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Van Wye. Mark is the CEO of Zoom Room, a revolutionary national dog training franchise that under his leadership is experiencing growth 4x the pet industry itself. A graduate of Amherst College, where he studied neuroscience, Van Wye is also a proud alum of Smith College from which he received an MFA in Playwriting. Much of his expertise is in early childhood development and the creation of large-scale educational platforms, working with clients such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Microsoft, Nintendo and various scientific television shows for children. Van Wye lives in Southern California with his son, Meyer, and his Komondor, Clyde Orange.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I grew up in Miami Beach, and when someone donated a TRS-80 to our school, they didn’t know what to do with it, so they let me have at it. I’d soon taught myself to code, and before long I was teaching night school to adults in computer programming.
An early entrepreneur, I saw how frustrated teachers were with their workload, and how eager kids were for fun money. I devised and implemented an employment bureau in which teachers posted jobs, kids would take on those tasks, and were paid in scrip that could be exchanged for fantastic prizes like toys and candy — donations I obtained from local businesses eager for the exposure. The governor presented me with a Little Schoolhouse Award — for innovation in education, an accolade typically reserved for principals. I was about ten at the time, and the following year I starred in a documentary about the Fiji Islands for CBS, interviewing children from diverse backgrounds about their life experience. I was a very busy kid.
In high school I was privileged to work in some of the most cutting edge biomedical research laboratories, studying ciliar beat frequency in sheep at Mt. Sinai, dissecting human eyes to examine the effects of aging on the synaptic cleft in retinas at the Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute, and even working in one of the very first laboratories devoted to HIV research, at Jackson Medical Center.
At Amherst College, I split my time between neurobiology and a theatrical production company I started, as well as an improv group I founded and that still draws packed crowds decades later.
The next decade or two involved grad school as well as a whirlwind of diverse projects — some consulting gigs to revitalize various businesses, some speechwriting for prominent politicians and CEO’s — much of this time wallpapered with NDA’s, as you can well imagine. Whether in the classroom working with purportedly “unteachable” kids, or developing after-school programs for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, education remained the centerpiece.
After several years living in Brazil, I was working as the Director of Development for the estate of Nat King Cole, tasked with bringing the icon into the 21st century. That’s what I was doing right before the birth of Zoom Room, and soon after, my son.
In Zoom Room I saw — and see — the rarest of business opportunities — the ability to own an entire category both in the U.S. and worldwide. Although we are still an emerging brand today, Zoom Room already has more 5-star reviews than any other dog training business in America. We authored the best-selling book on puppy training — allowing us to reach households that do not yet have a nearby Zoom Room. To have penned the definitive book in one’s field of expertise is beyond rare in the franchising — or any — world. Connecting on an emotional level every day with passionate dog owners who love to be actively engaged with their pup among like-minded people is one key to this success — that and providing the highest possible level of dog training expertise in puppy, obedience, and fast-paced agility classes as well as cutting-edge curricula and ongoing socialization events.
Enjoying every single moment with my son, and achieving this goal of owning the category of dog training — I’m utterly devoted.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
For as long as I can remember, and this goes back to early days of my youth, I am someone people call when they want fresh eyes. Beginner’s Mind is the Zen term of art, and it’s my metier. I don’t need to be an expert in your field — that’s your job — mine is to consider the givens, then throw away the givens, and see what we have left. You can call me an autodidact, a factotum, or an idea genie — it makes no difference to me.
It’s impossible to intimidate me, and foolish though I might often seem, it is this fearlessness that has allowed me to walk down some extremely diverse halls.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I am far from alone among CEO’s who value NPS [net promoter score] as one of the most highly predictive KPI’s across all businesses — B2B and B2C alike. From day one at Zoom Room, I made it my duty to monitor our NPS score both on a national and a store-by-store level. Unfortunately, almost no one else in the pet space — or even the franchising world at large — either knows or shares their numbers. So it’s difficult to make a fair comparison. Instead we’re left with what NPS numbers are out there in the ether. So, for example, we know that our NPS score — which has remained at 90 year after year — is up there on par with an Apple or Amazon.
This fills me with both pride and excitement. Pride in what we’ve accomplished — winning the enthusiastic affection of our clients — and excitement about the future. The reason NPS means more than a simple P&L is that it predicts future growth. It also keeps CAC (cost to acquire a customer) down.
Now none of that might have seemed very interesting. It was to me. But not nearly as eye opening as Hurricane Matthew was. When that hurricane plowed through the southeast coast, it decimated our Zoom Room location in Virginia Beach. It was one of our newest stores at the time — only open a year or so back then. And I’m from Miami Beach, so I know hurricanes. This one was no different. Rain and winds raging. And yet…
The very day the store was flooded, their clients showed up. In droves. With their kids, and squeegees and mops and pumps. Their customers literally bailed them out! In the aftermath of the hurricane, their customers and some small local businesses started a fundraiser because there was no flood insurance to help with any of the damage. Within just a matter of weeks, funded completely by their local dog-loving fans, the Virginia Beach store was rebuilt and back open for business.
It’s beyond heart-warming, what happened there. It made my jaw drop; because for the first time in my life, I knew what an NPS score of 90 actually looks like!
I mean, I consider myself a pretty good guy, but if a natural disaster wiped out a local store I like to patronize, I can see myself giving money to the Red Cross — but being out there in the storm with my son and a pump, and donating my money directly to them? I can’t think of a business that has ever touched and inspired me to that point.
This was also my most humbling moment as a CEO. What I had helped create was truly beyond my own imagination.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The two businesses I ever visit where I see every single person enter and exit with a big smile on their face are the Zoom Room and an ice cream shop. I consider these two to be the happiest places on earth. So, I became infatuated with the idea that we would carry Paw-Made® frozen yogurt that would be made right on the premises by the dogs themselves. Really!
I did extensive testing (on my own, without actually consulting any franchisees, employees or customers — huge mistake), and perfected the method, or so I thought. I rolled this out to everyone, utterly confident it would be a crowd pleaser.
It wasn’t. It was a goopy mess. I have a gigantic dog; it didn’t occur to me that many and most people have much much smaller dogs who couldn’t achieve the same results. The customers were uninterested, the staff were not happy. And I had some serious egg on my face.
This was a long, long time ago, I’m happy to say. Now we have an infrastructure in place to protect me from myself. We have systems to do much more rigorous testing before we roll out new products, services, curricula.
I still believe 100% that whimsy deserves a throne of its own in any business. But whimsy takes a backseat to utility every time. I walk the line between intuitive whim and rigorous, disciplined pragmatism. On my better days, I’m right smack in the middle. But in this case, I strayed…
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
An influencer begins with an advantage earned elsewhere. You’ve seen me as the ingenue on TV, now please buy this hard lemonade I either like or am pretending to like so very much. Influencers are puppets. Puppets, last I checked, don’t think. Their work is to promote the ideas of others by +1’ing them.
A leader’s stock in trade is their ability to inspire confidence and excellence. A great leader does not need to have a single original thought. Originality can be overrated. If I’m looking to hire a manager, I’ll take a great leader over a thought leader every day of the week. The satisfaction of an employee has very little to do with the CEO or other executives in a company; more than anything, their experience is most deeply affected by their immediate supervisor — their leader, regardless of her title. A leader is a great listener, motivator. They understand incentives. Everyone working under them aspires to be more like them and to win their admiration.
It would be lovely if a thought leader were influential and not locked up like Galileo. How nice for a thought leader to be well liked, appreciated, and able to inspire others. But too many of the greatest thought leaders in history were downright ornery and spent much of their time pissing people off. It comes with the territory: you innovate; innovation means change; change frightens people; people express fear with anger. If you persevere in spite of that overwhelming rejection, hindsight of a future generation will applaud your audacity.
It’s not impossible to be all these things. It’s also not impossible to find a snow leopard in your backyard. It’s just plain rare. The one thing you must be if you are a thought leader is original, insightful, perspicacious, and able to predict future trends far better than others in your field of endeavor.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
In business you will be asked time and again: What is your competitive advantage? What are your differentiators? If you’re using someone else’s playbook (which is what you’re doing if you’re anything other than a thought leader), how will you answer those questions? In order to answer them well, your responses must be genuine and genuinely fresh. If you can’t be a thought leader, then you need to employ one. That is, if you want to have exceptional answers to those questions…
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
If there is one word that future generations will associate with this past decade, it is “disrupt.” The word has been so overused that many sophisticated business leaders avoid it for fear of seeming hackneyed. It’s a shame it’s become so bastardized (I’ve seen a new line of sneakers advertised as disruptive because they were in a new color). Because at the end of the day, disruption — reimagining — seizing untapped resources — these are indeed the keys to the kingdom. A thought leader knows where to look: not at the ribeye, but at the organ meats and hooves.
Growing up in South Florida, I remember when all the taxis started displaying MIAMI NICE on their bumpers. This was a rebranding campaign. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s simply limited to being a mere slogan. Monetizing every idle car and driver into on-demand taxis — that is the output of a thought leader.
At the Zoom Room, we peeled away every trite convention of the traditional pet service space. There were no sacred cows. In the past dog training had been treated as not too different than car maintenance — your muffler rattles, you fix it; your dog pees on the carpet, you fix it. Transforming the entire concept into a lifelong shared experience with your pet and with other like-minded dog owners in a convivial, active space — this breaks all prior models of typical client retention, lifetime revenue, loyalty, and community impact.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Know your field. Picasso didn’t start with Cubism and neither should you. How will you know your ideas are fresh if you’re not tapped into the innovations of your peers? I myself consume a steady, voracious diet to ensure I’m aware of advances in pet services, canine behavioral research, education, customer retention, price optimization, and behavioral economics more generally.
- Create. #1 above is all about consumption but a thought leader can never succeed on a diet of the work product of others. Make time in your day, every day, to create. Draw, paint, write, sing, dance. I founded an improvisational theater group that is still going strong thirty years later, and have taught workshops around the country. For me the emphasis is learning to not try. To trust. Trust is frightening to many, especially when you’re giving yourself permission to express whatever orts happen to be clattering around your subconscious. It’s ok. If you’re nervous, no one ever said you need an audience. Make a sound and a gesture. Pick up an object from your desk and ask yourself: if you had to employ this for some purpose other than what it was designed to do — how might you repurpose it? Make time to create and trust it will enrich your business.
- Train your brain. Almost every incubator begins with the question, “What problem are you trying to solve?” That’s the litmus test held up to nearly every business except perhaps the pet rock. To succeed, we are told, we must solve a problem. And so: solve problems. Literally. It will surprise no one who knows me to learn that my mode of relaxation is to solve math problems. Pick your own favorite variety — anagrams, crosswords, spatial. I like to invent ones I come across during the day. For example, once I was on a long drive listening to Car Talk on the radio; Tom and Ray always read their phone number with a different cadence. Zero Zero could be double zero or oh oh or double oh, etc. So I wrote a generalized equation to enumerate the total number of ways to say a ten digit number out loud. By the time I was done, I had shifted back to Zoom Room and repurposed my work into a new algorithm I could employ for SEO on our website. The results were outstanding, unprecedented.
- Interrupt yourself. Many successful people tend to be workaholics. You’re tackling something, and you stay up until the wee hours, toiling away. Is your focus really that acute at 2 am? It isn’t. You’re too tired to realize the mistakes you’re making. So stop yourself. Yes, in mid-sentence. The novelist Graham Greene would set himself a daily quota — usually about 500 words a day. And when he reached that number, he would stop for the day, even in mid-sentence. The next day, he’d pick up right where he left off. Except, I’d add that it’s more than something as simple as pacing oneself, getting a good night’s sleep, enjoying life, or trusting yourself to remember your thought process — although all of those are indeed true. Take my son, for example. Whenever he has a problem — whether it’s an essay about mythology or a difficult interaction with a friend — I tell him to lie in bed thinking about it before he drifts off to sleep. In sleep, your mind will make new connections — it’s like having a little elf making shoes for you while you slumber. Mornings bring epiphanies — the eureka moments that arise when you allow yourself to set down your pen and stop mid-thought.
- Share. In a play of mine from many years ago, an old man admonishes a young writer to “Get it out! Get it out!” dismissing the writer’s ideas as worthless unless he shares them with the world. Publish. Do a podcast. Give a lecture. You can’t be any kind of leader in a vacuum. You can’t even do it posthumously — because then you may be seen as a brilliant innovator, but you will have led no one. The “thought” in thought leader is cerebral and internal, private and personal, solitary and inscrutable. It’s necessary, but it’s only half the task at hand. The “leader” is the extrovert, gregariously gathering those who will listen to your augurs. If you’re too much of an introvert and you lack this generosity of spirit, you cannot ascend to be regarded as a thought leader. So just as your kindergarten teacher exhorted you to do: share!
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
There is an expression used during the holiday of Passover: Daiyenu. It means, “It would have been enough.” A thought leader turns this on its head. It’s never enough. Lene Hau, an astonishingly gifted and probing physicist at Harvard, is a current exemplar of this way of thinking. She puts sodium atoms through a gauntlet to effectively hand-select the least energetic in order to create a seemingly impossible array of “optical molasses.” Each step in the process seems like it would be enough, but not the way she thinks. She adds step after step to push the boundaries of what we know about the material world. And then, when it seems clear she has reached the end, she poses a completely new question: what would happen if you introduce into the slowest/coldest substance in the universe the absolute fastest — light? And what happens next is… you’re just going to have to research this on your own — words can’t do it justice. What can we learn? Be audacious in your thinking, but also methodical. And understand that achieving seismic shifts is often attained through incremental growth. Since I became CEO of Zoom Room, our unit revenue has fully doubled, and continues to grow. We didn’t double the number of our clients; we didn’t double our prices. We achieved this through a series of scores of deliberate small tweaks and nudges. The way Lene, if I may be so bold, nudges her little sodium atoms. Never stop nudging. It’s never enough.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
What’s the one thing everyone wants? A crystal ball. You’re considering buying that house, investing in that stock, or you’re on your first date. If only you could predict the future… I believe that more than anything else, this is what draws people to franchises. Others may have considered starting their own dog training business, for example. But how will they optimize pricing, site selection, retention, diversity of product mix, hiring and staff management, marketing, branding, partnerships, cash flow, competitive advantages, product sourcing, web development, social media planning, CRM, POS, facility architecture — and I haven’t even mentioned curricula. The answer is they won’t — they won’t be able to be master of all those domains — they will try their hand at some, and succeed or fail, it will be a long process of learning and retooling, all on their own dime. They will pay for the dubious privilege of reinventing a wheel. So the smart money and the efficient mind turn to the thought leader. This is where a franchisor ought to be positioned — as the pre-eminent thought leader in their field. Thought leaders are the ones holding our species’ best approximation of that crystal ball. They have the data to back it up — other franchisees have done this, and just look how they’ve all succeeded. Speaking personally, I am extremely proud to be regarded a thought leader. And I am always happy to be put to the ultimate test: ask me to predict the future. A good thought leader will never shy away from such questions, and will hold herself or himself to an exceedingly high rate of accuracy.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Expose yourself to fields outside your own, through books, conferences, podcasts, journals. Don’t worry about having a purpose to this — the goal is neither to broaden your mind, nor to procrusteanly fit other topics into your own bailiwick. Rather, this is how you allow your subconscious to know the zeit in the zeitgeist. You’ll be amazed by the ideas that greet you when you awaken from sleep. A podcast I once heard about competitive eaters led to one of our most successful ad campaigns; it had nothing to do with consuming vast numbers of hot dogs, but rather with the systematic methodology of A/B testing. While we employ no call centers and have no apparent connection to the world of telecommunications, an article about call centers in India laid the groundwork for the most robust suite of data analytics we’ve ever devised, and which we’ve leveraged into outstanding growth. Stray. Stray far. You’ll always come back home, deeply enriched.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In some respects, I peaked when I was about eleven. Very sadly, the education I received emphasized the accomplishments of the past. I believed that earth and the stars had been mapped, that all great discoveries had been discovered. The only possible use for intellect was idle curiosity. Of course, that was an enormous fallacy, and a terrible waste of time. Nothing is more important for humans than early childhood education. I’d like education to shift from underscoring past feats to highlighting all of the questions yet unanswered. The problems that need to be solved — in urban planning, resource management, medicine, economics, mathematics, physics, conflict resolution, and on and on. We will always have bright minds. Let’s put them to use for the good of all by assigning homework for humanity and for the universe of which we are but an infinitesimal part.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’d like to give two. I’ve been breaking things down into thought (private) and leader (public). So one for each:
Humility is not a virtue. It is a litmus test to identify fools. The Greeks used the word hubris. What I look for is the absence of humility; if your ego is large, I walk the other way. Humility is everything. There’s an entire genre of books that unravel the antecedents of every great thought leader. Everyone — even the groundbreakers — stand on someone else’s shoulders. My favorite quote is not the surprisingly existential “vain striving and wind” from Ecclesiastes, for I’d no more call the work output of humans as vain than I would the underground cities built by ants. All species create out of material necessity. I prefer the preface to John Barth’s “Perseid” in Chimera:
Stories last longer than men, stones than stories, stars than stones. But even our stars’ nights are numbered, and with them will pass this patterned tale to a long-deceased earth.
My second favorite quotation helps me be a better leader. “The time to make up your mind about people…is never.” Spoken by Katherine Hepburn to Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. The capacity for change should not be debated; everything changes every day, if not through act of will, then in response to our environment. By the time this interview has ended, neither of us is still the same. We write our history every moment, by deciding how we choose to spend our limited time. I am always most interested in the resumé of what have you done today.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Lene V. Hau, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics at Harvard
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Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.