Thanks to American Express OPEN for sponsoring this post as part of the Big Break for Small Business program. Visit to learn more about the Big Break contest. Enter your small business for a chance to win a trip to Facebook headquarters for a one-on-one business makeover and $20,000 to grow your business with social media. See Official Rules for complete details.

It’s pretty easy to look around at people in your world that seem to have accomplished a measure of success and neglect to consider the ups and downs, flat out failures and lessons learned, and heart and soul that gets poured into creating the next 25 year over night success.

American Express asked me to share my story, my big break, as a way to perhaps inspire, or at least inform, someone else out there waiting for something to break.

Image mendhak via Flickr

When most people think of someone getting that big break they think in terms of a helping hand from a stranger or a mentor. (Chris Brogan tells just such a story as his big break) In my case, my big break came in the form of a grand jury summons and big fat slap in the face.

Now, I know this isn’t sounding like much of a break and, believe me, at the time I didn’t view it this way, but here’s the story.

I started my own marketing agency over 25 years ago and scrambled to find and deliver work with little more long term vision than making the next month’s overhead. Today I school lots of business owners on the virtues of vision and strategy and I can do it from a place of experiential knowledge.

About ten years in my business had grown beyond what I could have imagined and I was doing work for some very high profile institutions and causes. One sunny afternoon a couple of FBI agents showed up at my door to hand deliver an invitation to appear before a grand jury that was looking into the activities of several of my clients.

Now, no one was investigating me, I wasn’t guilty of anything illegal, but I was scared to death. If you let it, the hustle to grow your business can pull you outside of your ethical framework and blur what should be obvious decisions. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but did I suspect a couple of my clients may have been – perhaps.

So, this moment of intense fear and thoughts of letting myself and my family down actually turned into my big break because it gave me the kind of wake up I needed to remake my business in the form that truly served what I came to understand was my purpose in life.

My big break forced me to discover what I needed to do in my business in order for it serve what I needed to do in my life. At that moment, I vowed never again to work with clients that I didn’t respect and admire. Along the way I discovered that few things gave me more of a charge than helping small business owners realize what a freeing and enjoyable ride owning a small business can be – and that’s the higher purpose that makes what I do so fun today.

Below are three lessons that I’ve come to employ as I continue to learn and grow from my big break everyday.

1) Do work that feels like play

There’s a lot said about doing something you love and, while I won’t argue with the virtue in that, I’ll take it a step farther. I love what I do, but I get paid for what I finish. It’s that last 10% often that dictates whether or not a project is a success.

It’s very easy to get passionate about a venture in the beginning, but the true measure of staying power is in the pride to see something through to the end.

Work that feels like play to you will inspire you to finish.

2) Keep working on purpose

A lot of folks wring their hands about finding work that serves a purpose. What I’ve discovered is that purpose finds you, not the other way around. In the beginning it’s very hard to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, but ultimately purpose will evolve or you won’t stick with it.

Keep an eye out what for what really drives you to do what you do. A higher purpose is what makes this thing worth all the crap that comes with it, but don’t sweat it, live it.

3) Serve customers you respect

I’ve said that marketing is getting someone who has a need to know, like and trust you, but the opposite, I believe, is true as well. In the long run, if you can’t attract clients that you come to know, like and trust – and ultimately respect – then it’s hard to perform in a way that feels very authentic.

Customer service is mostly about mutual respect.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • John, you always give hope and … seems always at the right time too! Your three lessons are the best and from my prior endeavor, I couldn’t agree more! I’m still waiting for my “big break”; however, when I read encouraging posts like this and Chris Brogan’s, it helps me hang in there.

    I did want you to know that from your last comment to me about “kicking fear in the pants” I shot my first video blog post(s) and am doing more this week. (Always
    a work in progress, but I’m making progress either way!) So thank you so much for that! 🙂

    Here’s to big breaks, tenacity and a great week!

    Much kindness,


    • Thanks Elena – I always tell people owning a business isn’t about winning something, it’s about taking the next small step ahead every single day.

  • Kscanlon

    John, especially resonated with the part that “purpose finds you.” Great post.

    • Hey Kelly – thanks – magazine’s looking great these days!

  • Jpeischel

    I love what I do, but I get paid for what I finish. I love this. I’d like to take this a step further. I love what I do, but I want to get paid for my efforts. I launched my marketing business 2 and a half years ago, and my biggest concern was not ethics or causes, but paying my bills. I gave away way too much of my time. I’m now in a position where I am running this as a business, because we’re smart, savvy, and provide a valuable service. I love my clients, but I love them even more when they pay me.

    Janet Peischel, Top of Mind Marketing
    My blog,

  • I gave away way too much of my time. I’m now in a position where I am running this as a business, because we’re smart, savvy, and provide a valuable service. I love my clients, but I love them even more when they pay me.

  • Indeed, John, each business owner has to work with pleasure and enthusiasm on his project. When the business grows and makes money, the pleasure and the enthusiasm turn into success – a feeling that determines us to continue our work more efficiently.

    So, I consider that the feelings of an entrepreneur regarding its business are determined by the results he obtains as head of that project.

    Kindly regards,

  • Cheri Allbritton

    I believe mutual respect is born from providing your products or services in such a manner that meets or exceeds the client’s expectations and then the client returning to you to do business again and recommending you to others…not in the service itself.

  • Jason Kort

    Great post. Do what you love to do.

    Not sure if you have checked out UnMarketing by Scott Stratten but the first paragraph of Chapter 1 is very similar to your know, like, and trust theme.

    “When the need arises, customers buy first from people they know, like and trust.”

    • Yes I am familiar with Scott I’ve been using that definition for over 10 years and lots of folks have adopted it!

      John Jantsch
      Sent from my Duct Tape phone

  • Bruce

    What really annoyed me is that nowhere in the Duct Tape newsletter, the above from Jon, Amex or on the linked Facebook page was it mentioned that the contest was one of limited eligibility. Yes it did mention that there were official rules – but for me, that wasn’t enough. After watching the video and reading the Facebook page it turns out that I needed to read the terms to find out. And as it turns out, the “Contest is open to legal residents of the fifty (50) United States and District of Columbia”. I don’t mind that the contest is closed to a smaller non global market (ie just USA), but on behalf of the rest of the world, if the communications mentioned the limited eligibility, then I wouldn’t have been annoyed. If you or your company have global aspirations (or international communications) – then be more aware of your audience’s perspective. It would have been very easy to say “*Contest for US residents only. Official rules apply.”