John Ruhlin - Founder and CEO of Ruhlin Group

To get things done as a small company, we need people to take our calls, take us seriously, and take risks on us.

John Ruhlin is the founder and CEO of Ruhlin Group, a firm that specializes in high-level gifting plans to build relationships and acquire new clients.

The company was originally founded as a way to market Cutco Cutlery as a high-end corporate gift to companies of all sizes. This partnership with Cutco has allowed the company to become the No. 1 distributor of Cutco in the company’s 60-year history and an active consultant to its executives and leadership.

John currently resides just outside of St. Louis with his wife, Lindsay, and two kids. He’s the co-author of the best-selling book “Cutting Edge Sales” and is a sought-after speaker on the topics of C-level selling, relationship development, and strategic gifting.

Where did the idea for Ruhlin Group come from?

It was an evolution. I started interning with the world-famous Cutco Cutlery because I was trying to pay for med school. It was only going to be a summer job, but I fortunately had a girlfriend whose father was an attorney. He was the most generous person I had ever met. He was always giving gifts to those around him, and he also magically seemed to get called for every cool project in the community. He ended up owning prime real estate, oil wells, banks, etc.

One of the reasons was that he was so well-liked by everyone. I started to teach CEOs and leaders how to use “strategic appreciation” to grow sales and attract and retain top talent by showing them how to use gifts to stand out, be memorable, and deepen relationships. What started as a necessity and just wanting to sell a bunch of knives turned into a business.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

On days I’m not traveling, I get up between 5 and 7 a.m. (depending on how my two little girls slept the night before). I work out at home, jump in the sauna, focus on doing a few of the “Miracle Morning” principles (pray, journal, etc.), make my Bulletproof coffee, and head to work at a local coffee shop called 222 Artisan Bakery in Edwardsville, Illinois.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I try to surround myself with “doers” and world-class people. Many of them are in mastermind-type groups. I am a part of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, MastermindTalks, Empact, the Young Entrepreneur Council, and the Tom Hill Institute group called UNDIVIDED. Anything can be accomplished and brought to life with the right group of people who are willing to help.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Small businesses being able to play big without a lot of overhead. Also, I like seeing “givers” get their due and that being nice is no longer viewed as a weakness.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Giving more than is reasonable. To get things done as a small company, we need people to take our calls, take us seriously, and take risks on us. When we give more than is reasonable, people are compelled to go beyond what is normal to help open doors or refer business to us.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

Stocking shelves in high school at a discount grocery chain. I learned that I never wanted to work for someone else, trade time for an hourly wage, or be involved in anything retail.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would have brought on a business partner sooner. I’m not an operator or a finance guy. I have major gaps that have been filled by selling 50 percent of my business to another person who thrives in those areas. We’ve grown, and I make more by owning 50 percent than I did owning 100 percent.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Send handwritten thank-you cards that are based on Michael Maher’s technique for writing cards often. People underestimate the power of staying in touch in an old-school manner. Digital is powerful, but old school works even better when no one else is doing it. People do business with those they like, trust, and are top of mind. Thoughtful cards are a cheap way to do this. We believe it’s important enough to spend $8 on letterhead to do so because we really want to communicate that the person and the note are important.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I drink my own Kool-Aid and send gifts once a quarter to my most important relationships and prospects. We send out more than $200,000 a year. After every important meeting, I thank people with a $200 gift. Regardless of whether they do business with me, I want them to feel and understand that I valued the hour of time they gave me. It plants seeds of trust and creates a network of people who will take my call.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Before I sold my company, I gave my assistant full privileges to run the back end of my company. Check-writing, filing taxes, etc. Not only was she stealing from me, but she was also doing the taxes wrong. I ended up going through an audit and almost lost the business and everything I had. I learned that you can delegate, but oversight is a must.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Thank-you cards are a must, and handwritten cards are the best. There are great mechanical services out there, but an app that allows you to do this easily and have someone actually handwrite the card would be something I would love to have access to.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I played clarinet in middle school and was on the drama team. Also, my mom and my wife’s mother are both one of 13 kids.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I use AddressTwo for a CRM and have been playing around with Contactually and Yesware as an additional way to track relationships. I use Refresh to keep track of people I am meeting with.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Give and Take” by Adam Grant. It provides practical advice on how to be a giver and not be taken advantage of.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

John Ruhlin on Twitter: @ruhlin
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