Being a business owner is not for the faint of heart. It takes a firm resolve; the ability to persevere and pilot during challenging times; the humility to admit mistakes and empathy for the people around you. Understanding who you are is critical to that journey. In his new book, Broken to Better, Michael Kurland candidly shares every step of his own entrepreneurial odyssey.
Selling everything he owned, driving across the country to launch his new business and, ultimately, building a purpose-driven culture that aligns purpose with profit. From key principles of organizational strength to the secrets of profitability and growth, the book offers up triumphs and mistakes in the same spirit, empathy and gratitude.
Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum: and I’m excited to be here today with Michael Kurland, author of Broken to Better: 13 Ways Not to Fail at Life and Leadership. Michael, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Michael Kurland: Drew, thank you so much for having me here. I am excited to be here.
Drew Applebaum: Well, Michael, help us kick off the podcast. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
Michael Kurland: I sure can. I know we only have an hour so I’ll condense it for you. I graduated college in 2001 and I have a bunch of jobs, odds and ends jobs. I had a couple of sales jobs. Worked at Abercrombie & Fitch for a while, in the store, was not the guy in the front with the shirt off, but that did exist when I was there. I was the store manager and I was kind of finding my way through my initial professional career. 9/11 happened very shortly thereafter and I fell into a couple of sales jobs.
I didn’t really like them. I didn’t really like them, there was a lot of counting the phones and things of that nature. I had a buddy, his father worked for Jones Apparel Group, which was retail back in 2004, and he said, “You know, we got an opening for maintenance supervisor” and I said, “I don’t know the first thing about maintenance, I don’t know how to fix anything, I’m not really handy.” He said, “Well, do you know how to use a phone and computer?” and I said, “Yes, I do know how to use those two things” He said, “Then you’re perfect for the job.”
So I interviewed, I got the job, and I didn’t really know what I was doing other than facilitating work orders for Nine West and Jones Apparel Group retail stores all across the country. I was learning on the fly what certain things were. In the industry, in facilities management, a lamp is actually a light bulb. But I thought it was a lamp that you had on your nightstand.
For the first four months, I fake it till you make it, kept getting all these work orders and we were ordering hundreds of lamps for these stores, and I’m like, “Where the hell are all these lamps going in these stores?” I finally asked one of my supervisors, “Is a lamp a lightbulb? I think that’s what that is” and they’re like, “Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have hired you, buddy.” “But yeah, I’m here, aren’t I? I’m not going anywhere.”
So yeah, I did that for about three years and got pretty close with one of my vendors/ subcontractors that were providing me with the work, and they were based out of Long Island. I was in Westchester New York, they were in Long Island, it’s on Long Island, not in Long Island, I don’t know if you’re from Long Island, you’ll understand that and if you’re not, then, sorry for the…
Drew Applebaum: I am, I don’t know about the audience but yeah.
Michael Kurland: So, I was on Long Island and they offered me a job to come back and do sales for them. They didn’t have a salesperson, this is about 2007. I was like, I hated my two sales jobs. The only thing I hated more than my sales job was actually working at Abercrombie & Fitch because working in retail is terrible.
At the time, it was right around when the housing market was coming and crashing and the mortgage rates and all that stuff. It was the 2008 crash. So, I wanted to make sure I had a job. I went and worked for them as their salesperson and I was there for about seven years. In year six, they sold to private equity and, long story short, I learned everything I needed to know about the facility management industry from a retail restaurant, multi-site space, from my company. I learned everything I wanted to do and learned everything I didn’t want to do.
So 2013, flash forward, we get bought up by private equity. Private equity comes in, tell us they’re not going to change anything but they change everything, of course. Then they let me go after they sent me (this was actually one of my favorite moments in my career), they sent me — one of my biggest clients was Target, and that was one of their biggest clients as a company overall.
I knew that the writing was on the wall, things weren’t going to work out, and they sent me December 3 out to Minneapolis. If you’ve never been to Minneapolis in December, boy, you are missing out. It was about zero degrees and twelve feet of snow and I went out, flew out there, secured the contract for them for another three years, it’s kind of like my parting gift for them. Then on that Friday when I got back — so this was like a Monday and Tuesday I was there —and then Friday when I got back, I got the call down to the CEO’s office. While I was getting let go, my items were being packed up into that little cardboard box that you are so infamously known to get when you’re being let go.
So, I turned around and walked out, and three months later I had moved to California and started Branded Group. Then running Branded Group (which is also a facility management company) out here in Southern California, Orange County, it’s based out of the Anaheim area and been here for almost nine years, and never looked back.
The “Aha Moment”
Drew Applebaum: So, why was it time to share your story of everything you learned, not only along your way but specifically, starting your own company? Was there a moment of inspiration out there for you? Do you have an “aha moment” or just want to let the masses know and educate in your experience?
Michael Kurland: Yeah, great question, Drew. So I got here. I thought I knew everything about facility management and starting a company, and I was very confident in my ability to do all those things, and I was right. 2014, great year, we did almost a million in revenue on year one, which is pretty good for any startup, and we turned a profit, which also very good for any startup year one, and the end of the year, I was just like, “Cool, what else is there?”
I made a couple of bucks, I can see the trajectory of the company was on the right path, and I just felt empty inside. Asking myself, “What kind of legacy am I leaving on this planet other than a bank account?” So, I decided to start this journey of — let me back track. Our motto when we started was, “To be better,” that’s our tag line.
So, we wanted to be better than where we came from. I have business partners, that also were at the last company with me, that joined on this journey. So, ‘be better’ is ingrained in everything we do. When I was having these thoughts and feeling this emptiness, “What else is there?” I started thinking, “How can I give back, how can I leave a legacy on this earth?”
That’s when we started the one-for-one program with Branded Group, and it’s where we donated a minute of time through community service. Our initial partner was Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, and what we would do is we would actually donate time with our employees. Most nonprofits are looking for you to cut them a check, right?
You cut the check, you feel good like you’re making a difference, they get money, they can do whatever they want with that money. We turned a profit but we didn’t turn that much of a profit. So, I wasn’t at the place where I could cut a $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 check and not feel the pain of that, but I could donate time with my employees.
That’s where we started going with that. As time went by, this program grew, and we started really getting entrenched with giving back in this whole, purposeful company. Eight years later, we have numerous give back initiatives through our employees and we do cut checks at this point as well.
We just found a way to make a difference in so many different organizations, and touching so many different people’s lives in Orange County and across the country. I wanted to share that, in everything I’ve learned for new entrepreneurs, there is a way to be purposeful. It’s not just nose to the grindstone, make as much money as you can, and try and figure out this whole entrepreneur thing. It’s also, how do you lend some purpose into what you’re doing as well? So, that’s where the book concept credit came from, that’s from all these years of doing it.
Drew Applebaum: So, when you started to write the book, who in your mind were you writing this book for?
Michael Kurland: So, I guess I jumped the gun on that. I gave it away. I was writing it for the first-time entrepreneurs that, especially with the millennial and Gen Z generations out there, they’re the ones that are starting to be the entrepreneurs, and they’re very focused, on purpose. It’s not just about making money anymore.
I mean, yes, obviously, every entrepreneur gets into business to make money. But it’s also for freedom, and to have the ability to have a say so in your life, and where your time goes and where your energy goes. They want that ability to give back, to have some sort of purpose.
That’s who it’s really tailored to: any entrepreneur that’s — really the first time entrepreneur —that wants to not just have a ‘how to get things off the ground’, but the things you’re not thinking about. Yeah, okay, you got to call a lawyer, you got to call a banker, you got to call an accountant, you got to get building space — or maybe now you don’t but you used to have to get building space — and all those things.
But once you get through all that in hiring and firing and all that stuff, what’s the bigger purpose of your company besides turning a profit?
Drew Applebaum: So, is being a business owner, is being an entrepreneur for everybody? If not, what are the skills that someone really, really needs to be successful?
Michael Kurland: No, the answer is no, it’s not for everybody. Everyone — I say this all the time — you need leaders or entrepreneurs, and you need workers too. You need worker bees. You need people that want to come in, punch the clock from nine to five, and go home and not think about their job, because that’s how you get things done. If everyone wanted to be the boss, nothing would get done because everyone would just be stepping out over each other.
There would be no team work and there would be no people getting things done. So, no, it’s not for everyone, but I don’t think that there is a certain skillset that you need to be an entrepreneur. I think it’s more like, “What do you want out of your life, what’s important to you?” I think I mentioned it before, for me, my most important commodity in my life is my time. The only thing you can’t get back. It’s the only thing you can’t make more of unless they’ve somehow found the fountain of youth. Sign me up if they do.
I wanted the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. You know, being rich, being famous, I mean, whatever. But, being able to like, “I’m going to go fly to Hawaii today and I’m going to work from my hotel room and then vacation for the next after hours.” That’s what I want. So, it’s for people that really want that lifestyle and want to be able to have control of their time.
There is one skillset that I would say — I don’t know, I don’t think there’s one skillset. I think you can mention a big — maybe you’re a good listener and maybe you are good at sales or maybe you are good at operations and maybe you are a good talker, and those things work for you. For me, I think it’s been being great at sales and being a great listener and having empathy and leading with empathy. So those are the three things that have made me successful as an entrepreneur.
Drew Applebaum: You say in the book that you learned a lot of lessons during your course of becoming an entrepreneur and along your entrepreneurial journey. Where do a lot of these lessons come from? Was it from just from your personal experience? Did you learn a lot from colleagues? Are there certain books that you read?
Michael Kurland: All of the above. I definitely I made my mistakes along the way, definitely learned lessons as we grew. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned, as of recently, is not to react so quickly. Take a little time to settle down and let things simmer, and then figure out what the best course of action is. I think I was shoot-first-ask-questions-later for about the first eight and a half years of running a brand new group.
It got me to a place that I’m at now (I don’t say I’m older) but as I have gotten wiser, I realize that sometime I should intake and settle on what I want before I go out there and start executing people. As far as books, the John Mackey book, Conscious Capitalism, that’s actually—probably should have mentioned that earlier. I read that right before we started the one-for-one program.
I aligned with it so much, the give backs of making your company have purpose, treating your employees and your subcontractors very well because they’re the ones that take care of your clients. So, care for people, take care of people. Is that how it goes? Care for people, caring for people. That’s how it goes. That’s very important as well.
I learned things from my life experience. I went through a divorce as well as getting fired at the same time, that was a lot of hard things to go through, but I persevered. I am a victor not a victim, I like to say that as well. We all have stories, we all have scars, and it’s what do we do with them. Do we let them beat us down, because life can beat you down if you let it. But, do you take that and you spin it to a positive thing? Those two things really opened my eyes to who’s going to feel bad for me.
I don’t have time to feel bad for myself. I need to pull my bootstraps up and start moving in the right direction.
Drew Applebaum: How did the pandemic change either the story you were going to write before, if anything at all? Did it have major business effect on you, aside from the book?
Michael Kurland: Yeah. Well, the book actually came about because of the pandemic, because it was the perfect time for us to sit down and start writing it, me and my team, we had a lot of free time. I will thankfully say that the pandemic, it changed the way we do business, in a good way. We had just signed, in October of 2018, that seven-year contract for our new, beautiful workspace, with the foosball table and the PS4 and the kegerator in the kitchen. Everyone was excited about that, because that was life.
Now, it’s funny how our office is a ghost town. It is actually more of a time capsule because we have still things from March of 2020 that were pertinent, and then when we sent everyone home, we’ve never gone back. We are a totally remote workforce now. It changes from that perspective. I think it really made me dive into who my people were because I had a lot of millennial workforce, and of that millennial workforce, most of them are single.
So, they were working from home, they were worried about the pandemic, they were alone and they were working. So, what do they do? They dove into work and they were working 10, 12 hours a day because there is nothing else to do, and the productivity was up but that’s not what I wanted. That was just a byproduct of the way the world was at the time. So, I reached out to all my employees and I was like, “Guys, you need to take your breaks. You need to take some time off, get some down time.”
I really, like I said, I lead with empathy. I dove further into the empathy with the people, I’m trying to keep the connection. I mean, we had about a thousand Zoom happy hours, which I am happy to say we don’t really do anymore, and two things I learned about Zoom happy hours is you get really drunk on them (because you’re your own bartender and you don’t want to cut yourself off), and then they get really stale really fast because you can only talk about so many things so much. So, that’s what I learned during the pandemic.
The “Be Better” Mantra
Drew Applebaum: So, about taking those moments for yourself during the pandemic and overall, you have a “be better” mantra. Can you talk about that?
Michael Kurland: It’s in everything that we do. So we want to be better to our employees, to our subcontractors, our vendors, those other people that come in and do all the work for us on site, for our clients. By doing that, we want to pay them on time. We want to make sure that we’re keeping everything above board with them. With our employees, we want to, again, be very transparent with them.
Let them know where they stand, we don’t play games, we try to get the most out of them. We tell them if you’re doing poorly here, if we do this and excel here, you’ll get to where you want to be. We are better with our clients, again, transparency. You know, we don’t keep things, we don’t lie to our clients, and that’s something in our industry that was prevalent before. We are better to our community and, in 2020, I added be better to ourselves. That’s really where that came from.
We want our employees to take their time off, that’s what it’s there for. You know, we have some blackout time on the calendar, which is very miniscule compared the whole year, and it’s only when it’s just the start of super busy season. But other than that, it’s take your vacation. That’s why it’s there for, don’t roll it over, don’t not take it because you’re worried about going out of the office and coming back and having a stock pile of work or you’re worried about finances. Go enjoy that down time, whether it’s sitting at home or just disconnecting or getting on a beach somewhere.
Drew Applebaum: Michael, what impact do you hope the book will have on a reader, and are there any steps you’ll hope they take either during the reading of the book or when they finish?
Michael Kurland: I don’t think that there are steps, I just hope that it opens up their minds to—it’s not just, like I said earlier, about rushing to find a lawyer. And you wear so many hats when you start a company, right? You are not thinking about this giveback initiative as well and being able to put your company into a place where it can help other people, and have a purpose. I hope it opens their mind to see that you can also meld that in from day one.
It doesn’t have to be a year five thing or year ten thing, it can be a year one thing, and the byproduct of doing that, where it is a startup is that people also like to do business with, companies that have that sort of initiative, that purpose. We’ve gained numerous clients just because of that, not because of our product is. We don’t have anything innovative and what we do in our industry.
We do what everyone else does for about the same price that everyone else does it. So, the reason that it’s differentiating is our purpose, and that people do align with our purpose and they want to do business with us because they do align with their purpose.
Drew Applebaum: Now, you do have a companion website alongside the book, can you tell us what the address is and what readers and listeners can find there?
Michael Kurland: Sure, the address is Michael Kurland, my name, michaelkurland.co, not michaelkurland.com, that is another author also named Michael Kurland, way more –
Drew Applebaum: Wow, what are the odds?
Michael Kurland: Way more famous than me, yeah. He is like a mystery writer from the 80s or something but yeah, michaelkurland.co. You can order the book there, copies are available. There is also all the podcasts that we’ve done, the Be Better Podcast, which we’ve been working on for the last two years, which is very closely connected to the book, with the lessons learned in the book.
Anything else you want to learn about me, there is also a cute picture of my dog, Harvey, who is my best friend, so he is there as well.
Drew Applebaum: Well Michael, we just touched on the surface of the book and there is so much more inside. I just want to say that putting this book out there to just help entrepreneurs inside and outside of the office, that’s key and no small feat. So congratulations on having your book published.
Michael Kurland: Thank you Drew, I appreciate the time.
Drew Applebaum: It’s been a pleasure. I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Broken to Better, and you could find it on Amazon. Michael, besides checking out the book, besides going to your website .co, where else can people connect with you?
Michael Kurland: They can go to branded-group.com and they can connect with me that way as well. I’m on one of the pages in there for connecting to me and the CEO.
Drew Applebaum: Awesome. Well Michael, thank you so much for spending some time with me here today and best of luck with your new book.
Michael Kurland: Thank you, Drew. Thank you audience for listening and hopefully you guys will enjoy the book.