About Jonathan Rozek
Maybe you’re visiting this page in order to determine what sort of consulting and writing chops I have. In that case, just jump to the section that interests you. But in case you are interested in a bit of my backstory, you can click on those sections. An “About” page doesn’t need to be one-size-fits-all.
It all began for me in Boulder, Colorado. My mom was an artist and my dad was a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I started to learn to ski at the age of 3, and am still doing it, though now in New England and Switzerland.
I’ve also had a lifelong interest in writing, with my first spontaneous, non-homework third-grade opus titled Sam the Snake. We lived at the time in Palo Alto, before they discovered silicon in that valley.
I was a pretty average student for a number of years in school. But then I had some ear troubles (“otitis media” if you’re in med school). For some reason that I still can’t figure out, that event coincided with a change in my approach to school. I became a straight-A student. From the 8th grade all the way through high school, I had a 4.0 average.
One memorable low point during this period was playing the cello. Let me revise that: The playing of the cello was enjoyable, but doing solos was pure agony. I could play a piece perfectly when by myself or when we played together as an orchestra. However, if you’ve ever played in an orchestra, you know about “seating auditions.” When the time came for me to play, my adrenaline valve seemed to stick in the “open” position. My hands would shake with too-much energy being pumped into them. My brain was confident I could play the piece just fine, but my body seemed to tap into some primal signal that it’s time to fight the Woolly Mammoth. I sounded like crap, shaking, and bringing even more attention to myself, and that naturally hiked my adrenaline to red-line levels. I was in orchestra for five years, so this was some recurring pain.
A notably happier memory was when I entered an essay contest in school. One day I got a note to come to the principal’s office. Uh oh. My English teacher and the principal were there, and they told me that my essay was not just the best in the class, and not just best in the school, but had won the contest city-wide. The little write-up in the paper and the U.S. Savings Bond was much-superior adrenaline to the orchestral variety.
Outside of school when I was not riding my bike or skiing, I loved to tie fishing flies. I especially loved to tie the very smallest ones called midges (think 3mm long), and some unique designs of my own. I liked to tie flies even more than to fish with them. At one point I had collected enough experience and shortcuts that I decided to write them up in an article. I submitted it to Fly Fisherman Magazine, and it was accepted! They paid me to write! It was my first info product.
I finally got my check from the magazine and was a bit concerned: It was the height of the Vietnam War and the U.S. was mining Haiphong Harbor. Things were heating up with the Soviets. I remember holding that check, watching John Chancellor on the NBC Evening News, and wondering if life as we knew it would in fact continue, or if Rocky Mountain winters would be replaced by nuclear ones. I had done enough civil-defense drills in elementary school to know that this was not a completely silly product of my imagination.
With my grades, writing activities, varsity gymnastics, skiing, a National Merit Scholarship and other resume line items in hand, I applied to a few colleges, hoping for the best. On April 15, the mailman either would deliver a thin letter (“We regret to inform you…”) or a fat envelope. I got a fat one: “On behalf of the President and Fellows of Harvard College…” It was fat because it included the course catalog.
Move-in Day at Harvard was interesting. I showed up at Straus Hall and saw a maintenance guy working outside. I showed him my room-assignment paper and asked for directions. “Let me see that. Oh, your name’s ‘Rozek’, huh. So we have a Polack!”
It was my first taste of a Harvard Education. Fortunately he was not representative of people I met around the college.
I had studied Chinese while in high school, and when the time came to decide on my major, I went with ancient Chinese studies. It was also possible to major in modern Chinese, but I had no interest in studying Mao, Communist China, and the war they waged not only against their own great people, but also to stamp out the Chinese-character language altogether. That’s right—for a while they bastardized Chinese into an alphabet form so that military orders could be transmitted quickly. I had no use for these decidedly non-Chinese “revolutionaries” because I had been turned on by a friend named Walter Judd to the amazing traditional Chinese culture, and its thousands of years of impressive history and beautiful language.
I studied both Mandarin Chinese and Classical Chinese. Let me tell you three things about Classical Chinese. First, you read it not on rows, but in columns, and not left-to-right but starting on the far-right side of the page. Second, there is no punctuation. Ancient scholars knew the language so well that they of course knew where one thought ended and the next began, so who needs punctuation? Well I did, because I had a hell of a time just figuring out what was a sentence. Third, they did not have any need to indicate proper nouns in the really old texts I studied. People’s names were often made up of a combination of nouns that meant other things. A guy’s name might mean “deep forest.” So I’d be reading along, already trying hard merely to isolate sentences, and would come across the equivalent of “The soldier asked the deep forest for advice…”
Because I was already confused, I decided to take Russian, accelerated French, and Chinese simultaneously at Harvard. I enjoyed words, no matter which language or written format they involved.
When I wasn’t studying, I was founding the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Club. I went to the local graphic-arts store and got rub-on lettering. Then I created flyers to advertise the coming weekend dance class and party. I posted them all over campus. At times I had as many as 85 people show up to learn. Talk about “return on investment:” one of the attractive Harvard students in my dance class would later become my wife, Margaret.
One of the most-memorable classes I took was about oratory. (Harvard has an astonishing collection of interesting courses, taught by mostly accomplished professors. The problem is how to choose.) We studied a variety of great speakers down through the ages, and the final project for the course was to write a Harvard commencement speech.
I worked for a long time on that speech. The professor kindly offered to the class to read the speeches and give guidance before we turned them in, so we would have a chance to fix things.
The only time a professor ever made a house call to my dorm room was when this guy was on his way off campus and offered to stop by to read my speech. In the kindest way he knew how, he said that really I might want to not fix anything, but instead to start again from scratch. I got the message. The only problem was that I was to deliver that speech to class the next morning.
After dinner I parked myself in the library, not knowing what to write about. No time for research; this one had to come from inside me. The stars were aligned that night, because I wrote the speech in one sitting as it just flowed out of me. I didn’t even need to pull an all-nighter.
The next morning, the professor looked at me for signs of stress fractures. “You get any sleep, Jon?” I said “Actually I did!” I then gave my speech to the class and it was one of the finest moments of my time at Harvard. The class gave me a most-energetic round of applause, and the professor’s reaction was one of utter disbelief.
“Jon, I have been chairman of the commencement-address selection committee for several years up through last year, and I gotta tell you that you must submit this to the committee. It’s easily better than ones we’ve chosen in the past.” That was all the encouragement I needed. I tightened the speech here and there, and submitted it.
I was not chosen. Unfortunately, out-of-the-box thinking was not in vogue that year at Harvard, because the commencement speaker graced us with something along the lines of “As we sit here, having recently closed the doors on our last classes at this great institution, we need to remember that we’re opening doors to new adventures that await us….” Pretty darn original thinking, worthy of Harvard tuition.
No biggie. If you’re interested in what I thought a commencement speech should be, you can read it here.
I graduated with High Honors (magna cum laude) in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard College in 1980. I was also a Harvard Scholar.
Armed with detailed knowledge of ancient Chinese language and culture, I got a job that would put all of that expensive knowledge to great use. I got a job on Wall Street.
Well it was not actually on Wall Street, but on State Street in Boston, dealing with the world of Wall-Street investments. I had majored in Chinese not because I thought the job prospects were good, but because it interested me. Turns out the job prospects were terrible, even after Nixon “opened up” China: My thesis advisor told me that in a typical year, very few jobs in ancient Chinese studies open up anywhere in America. Not three hundred jobs, or three dozen. Three.
Even if jobs were more plentiful, I wanted to stay in Boston where Margaret was starting her pursuit of a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
To make a very long story short, I met a fellow who was in the business and said to me: “I guess if you can learn ancient Chinese, you can learn investments.” He hired me to specialize in “limited partnership due diligence.” That meant taking my knowledge of Sung Dynasty poetry and applying it to whether we should offer an oil & gas limited partnership to our hundred offices nationwide, so those investment specialists could offer the programs to their individual investors.
It might sound like a prescription for disaster to have someone like me doing that work, but it worked out. First, I had to get a number of different investment licenses. Second, the decisions were made by committee, based on my and others’ recommendations. Third, I got really very good at the art of asking the right questions, so as to understand whether I was dealing with a snake-oil salesman or a person who knew her stuff. By “stuff” I mean I analyzed the following types of investments, or “deals” as we called them:
- Triple-net lease real estate, like shopping centers
- Other commercial real estate like office buildings
- Many types of oil & gas investments
- Equipment leasing
- Government-subsidized housing
- Research & development deals involving things like monoclonal-antibody research for the treatment of AIDS
- Radio-frequency treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis (actually interesting stuff)
- Hydroelectric projects
- Cattle deals
- You get the picture.
In all, I personally reviewed more than 3,000 deals and we offered more than 300 of them, ranging in size from about $1 million to $300 million each. Later I wrote a multi-hundred-page course on how to know if you’re being taken to the cleaners in a sophisticated investment like limited partnerships. I was invited to give a lecture at NYU and at conferences around the country about these investments.
I would not just recommend deals, but sometimes would strongly recommend against doing a popular program. It was one such scathing written analysis of mine that found its way to Capitol Hill. I was invited to testify before Congress on reform needed in the investment industry. I later helped the Senate with a similar effort.
Once again I gravitated to putting in print what I had learned, and got published here, here, and here in a peer-reviewed journal. Investment winds were changing, and limited partnerships had become synonymous with “abusive tax shelters.” We never offered the nasty stuff, and often our investments had no tax benefits whatsoever. At any rate, the industry dried up.
As is the case with many companies, from time to time we got swept up in business fads. Some C-level exec would read an article about reengineering, or quality, or whatnot. The following morning the article would be copied and distributed with a scrawled command at the top, along the lines of “Let’s do this!!” I write about one such adventure here.
I became involved with a whole other, arcane area known as “managed accounts.” Here too, it’s a very long story about what they are, how they work, which ones are good, and you probably don’t give a damn so I won’t go into it.
The good news was that I was deeply involved in the creation of a product that provided some excellent investment opportunities for investors. Part of what we pioneered was a way to explain investment performance to people who did not have a technical background. Our clear reports were the best in the industry, as far as I could tell. We accumulated almost $1 billion in assets under management.
The bad news was the parent company’s “size matters” growth antics led to an organizational mess. The parent company made a series of poor investments in real estate. That resulted in the oldest mutual life insurance company in America suddenly being in big financial trouble, and becoming an acquisition target. A giant insurance company bought us, along with a bunch of other, similar firms. We’ve all heard the typical line about how such acquisitions will provide “economies of scale” and “more opportunities for everyone.” Well, pretty soon the word came down: The parent company needs to cut budgets to the tune of $100 million in one year.
These days, $100 million is a crappily low amount to pay for some silly photo app with no revenue. But a few years ago, $100 mil was actually a lot of money. For us, it meant letting people go, halting projects, and second-guessing everything.
Deeply involved as I was with managed accounts, one of my responsibilities was to ensure that we had people or systems in place so that accounts got “rebalanced” regularly. It’s a process whereby you sell some of the investments that have done the best in the last period, and buy more of the ones that have gone down. Sound silly? It’s not. It’s well-established as the way to keep your portfolio from getting lopsided and too risky.
We didn’t keep up with rebalancing. Part of it was due to certain key people leaving, and part was due to the need for a much-more automated system than we had, because we had grown quickly. When I researched and made a presentation to the Big Dogs in Manhattan for the comprehensive system that would at last enable us to do rebalancing automatically, it was extremely well-received and given provisional approval. Until a week or so later it was put on hold for budget purposes.
I had been submitting weekly reports to my boss about exactly how many accounts we had, how many were in balance, and how many needed rebalancing. But the company was going through an upheaval of cost-cutting and reorganizations. A key executive 3 levels above me was ousted. Then the guy 2 levels up quit in disgust. My boss soon was let go. A few weeks later I got a call from a particularly well-connected colleague who said “Jon, resign. You need to resign now, as in before 11am, because that’s when they’re planning to fire you.” I knew she was trustworthy, so that’s exactly what I did. After having been 20 years with the company.
I had nothing to hide and in fact wanted to make sure that the records did not disappear of my reporting exactly where we stood on this rebalancing project. Even before I left I had been in a number of meetings with people inside and outside the company on the rebalancing problem, and that continued afterward. I spent many days meeting with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Boston, giving them a complete brain dump on what we had built, what we did accomplish, what did not get done, who knew about it, and so on. An analysis was done by an outside entity as to who did not get rebalanced promptly. Some portfolios actually benefited from not being rebalanced and they made more money than if the process had been done. Other investors lost money because of the lack of rebalancing, and they were made whole by the company. However, I was fined $10,000 and my boss was fined $100,000. The ironic part is that the Securities and Exchange people thanked me repeatedly for my long hours of answering every question in voluntary interviews after I had left the company, and explaining boxes and boxes of documents.
Here’s the interesting principle I’ve learned about this whole deal, and you might make sure that you’re not in this position right now as you read this: When there is some longstanding problem, it’s not good enough that you’re making progress toward a solution. It’s even not good enough that you’ve reported the situation up the chain of command. At some point, you need to get loud and indignant, and do it in writing. If I had only written an email that said: “Urgent: We can’t cancel that project due to budgets! I really really insist that we find the money and resources to fix this thing, because it’s gone on too long and investors are paying us for these services!” I’m confident that one such email would have saved me all sorts of pain—though whether it would have been enough to fix the problem is anyone’s guess. Even though I was by no means in a position to refund money to investors or move budgets around, I was technically an “officer” and should have pushed harder.
Later I was told by someone in the know that I was dealt with in a disproportionately harsh way, given that I did report where we stood at all times, did not benefit personally from any of it, and worked for a long time on the automation project. Apparently someone needed to take a hit.
Years before I left corporate America, I had been fascinated with this new World-Wide Web phenomenon, and went to hear Tim Berners-Lee give a speech at MIT. I started to create some products of my own and also bartered some of my writing services to online companies in exchange for their products.
Even though I had been good at writing from a pretty young age, I discovered a realm of writing that I’d only been dimly aware of—copywriting. I had always thought that copywriters were schlumps who wrote silly slogans for hair-coloring products and razor blades. Turns out copywriters are among the highest-paid professionals out there. Some write slogans, but other copywriters write books, articles, websites, presidential speeches, you name it. My eyes were opened.
My significant knowledge of real estate investing came in handy, because soon I was working with investors who were in different stages of creating information products to teach others how to invest in real estate. I intensively studied the best direct-response writers, both living and dead. I dissected some of the masters’ sales material and diagrammed what they said when, and how they said it. I went to conferences and was part of “mastermind groups” where people met regularly to rip apart each other’s stuff in a constructive way.
One client led to another, and pretty soon I had written all sorts of material:
- Long-form sales letters, both online and in snail mail
- Email sequences
- Landing pages
- Google Adwords campaigns
- Home-study courses
I also learned about lead generation, offers, upsells, funnels, calls to action, proof elements, and most importantly about testing.
I marketed products with price tags from free (in order to get the leads) up to $250,000. There were plenty of dead ends and mediocre results, but then again there were successes: A single 90-minute webinar I worked on generated $220,000 in 90 minutes. I delivered 1,900 registrations for a single live event using email and direct mail. Some of the mailing lists I helped to build had hundreds of thousands of names. We didn’t buy lists but instead earned the names through people liking the material and asking for more.
At one point a client asked me to work on a book that had been languishing in the lap of a “coach” who was anything but clear. We got the book done and marketed it so that it hit Amazon #1 bestseller status. Not just a bestseller in one narrow category, or just in the “business books” genre, but worldwide #1 bestseller.
That’s not as impressive as getting a book to the New York Times bestseller list, but even so, not many authors can make the claim. Lots of authors who never reach bestseller status even for a few days will say “Oh, that’s nothing. You can promote your way to the top.” The way I look at it, the only people who can justifiably claim “it’s nothing” are the ones who accomplish it and then go on to greater heights. I tip my hat to them.
So far, I’ve written or ghost-written 6 books, and three of them have reached Amazon #1 worldwide bestseller status. I’ve also ghost-written many articles for Entrepreneur.com and The Huffington Post.
My most-recent book is a biography of Bill Bartmann, an exceedingly unusual person. He went from alcoholic gang member at 18, to being paralyzed and told he’d never walk again, to walking again, to billionaire. And that’s just the first part of his story. You think you’ve had a rocky time of it? I suggest you read the book.
In addition to copywriting and book writing, I’ve been heavily involved in conversion-optimization copywriting. That means turning a larger number of website visitors into buyers.
It’s a relatively new science—and it is a science. Most businesses think they’ll make more money if they shovel more eyeballs to their site. Well that can work sometimes, but usually it results in higher traffic but not proportionately more sales. If “more traffic” were the answer, than we’d all be filthy rich by getting ranked in Google for “free beer.”
Conversion optimization is a process of figuring out why some people buy, and why others are qualified to buy but don’t. I specialize in testing my wording ideas against what is already on a site. No theory here: We set up a test so some visitors see one version, and other visitors see a different version. May the best version win.
I have 57 documented cases of beating the existing version with split-tested, statistically significant wins. My average improvement in those wins is 27.9% with an average annualized revenue boost of $570,839. They’ve been in a wide variety of industries:
- Ecommerce (all kinds of stuff including eyewear, auto parts, health supplements, flowers…)
- Security systems
- Mortgage lending
- Home improvement
- Weight loss
- Real estate
Some of them have even been in languages I don’t speak. It’s easier than it sounds: If you understand something about human nature, then you can have the existing page translated into English, and have your test ideas translated into the other language. People are people just about everywhere.
I currently consult with companies on much of what I mentioned above: copywriting projects, book writing and promotion, conversion optimization, structuring investments, and other topics.
If you have a thought about how we might work together, just shoot me a message here. I have no interest in hard-selling you on working together. Instead, I’m willing to see if we think alike and if we might explore working together on mutually profitable projects.