If you had to pick two faces that are legendary at Inc.'s annual conference, you could safely choose Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham. Norm is a veteran entrepreneur whose six companies include CitiStorage, a three-time Inc. 500 honoree. Bo is Inc.'s editor-at-large.
What's notable about this pair, if you're not familiar with their work, is that they have been collaborating for 14 years on Inc.'s monthly Street Smarts column. Their first jointly authored book, The Knack: How Street Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever, is due out in October 2008.
I snagged the two of them on a conference call recently to find out more about how they work together. They are also appearing jointly this week at the Inc. 5000 Conference where they'll talk more about their new book (they'll reveal 10 things you *must* understand in order to develop street smarts).
Two minutes into the call, it was quickly apparent that I was eavesdropping on the Bo and Norm Show. They interrupt each other, contradict each other and happily finish each other's sentences. How did you two start collaborating, I asked. That started a 45-minute riff.
After meeting Norm at an Inc. 500 conference in the early 1990s, Bo asked him for permission to write a story about a couple Norm was coaching as they started and grew a home-based business selling computer supplies. Norm responded by saying he wanted to write the story. Bo and the other Inc. editors laughed.
Breaking editorial rules, however, they showed him a draft before the story ran. "You're not doing it in the right voice," Norm told them. The article was amended with Norm's input, then ran as the cover story in July 1995. It got a tremendous response from readers and prompted the magazine to ask Norm if he'd like to write a column. Thus was born Bo and Norm's collaboration on Street Smarts. The two also talked about writing a book together but that project got side-tracked for over a decade.
Fast forward to the present. The two live on opposite coasts and sometimes on different continents. (Bo spends part of the year in France.) How do they write a monthly column together? I pictured all sorts of online collaboration tools and long distance phone calls.
It starts with dinner and a good glass of Sancerre (good choice - definitely my favorite white wine). "We start talking, then we go back to Norm's place. We sit on his back porch overlooking the East River in Manhattan. We talk some more over cigars and port and ideas begin to form," Bo explained.
Next morning, they sit down together face to face and tape record an interview. "Usually we only have a sketchy idea of what we're going to do. But at the end of an hour we know, yeah, we have a column," Bo said.
The interview is transcribed and Bo does a draft. Norm looks at it and says "this isn't quite right and here's what you need to say." In effect, Norm edits. "In the last 10 years we haven't missed a month, which is an achievement," Bo said.
As to why they insist on collaborating face-to-face... it's the same in business, Norm points out. "We bring our customers in to meet our staff and the relationship becomes deeper. This touchy feely thing is important. Even if 99 percent of what we do is online, relationships get better if you touch the other person."
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