Is This Why Your Farm or Business Is Failing?

Perhaps the small, rural town where I grew up claimed this as a joke more than a fact, but “fact” was Tunkhannock, PA had more cows than people.  Beautiful, quaint dairy farms scattered throughout the Endless Mountains wove a strong culture of hard work throughout the community.  As much as I appreciated those farms and the people work worked them, I must admit I hated the work itself.  Heck, one of the main reasons I went to college was to escape the prospect of having to work on one!  My brother, on the other hand, loved farm work so much he went on to earn a PhD from Penn State’s School of Agriculture.  But no matter where one ranks manure spreading on the fun scale, we can all agree that farming is part of what makes America America.

Today, however, the small, family-owned dairy farm is going the way of the Blockbuster Video Store.  Farm Aid reports that since 1970, more than 90% of U.S. dairy farms have closed shop.  In Wisconsin and Minnesota, dairy farms are now closing at a rate of two per week.  Why?

Follow the news and you’ll see blame cast at oversupply, poor government policies, a sweeping anti-dairy movement, even the Canadians’ crooked trade policies (really?).  But Jim Valent, a friend of mine whose family operates one of New York State’s most historic dairy farms, says it best.  “The majority of dairy farmers have a flawed business plan,” he explains.  “Their approach is, ‘We’ll make it and someone else will sell it.’”

For decades, American dairy farmers have tended to their farms, milked their cows, and then waited for a tractor trailer to swing by and haul their product of to…  well, who knows where.  Once that truck pulls out of the farmer’s driveway, Farmer Brown turns around and goes back to producing more milk.  The actual business of where the milk goes, into which products it’s added, even the price for which it’s sold at your grocery store is left to third party traders and government agencies.  And from there things get messy.  Suffice to say Farmer Brown and his dairy brethren are not thriving due to the selfless, savvy negotiations and policies that Uncle Sam & Co. have devised.

As I considered Jim Valent’s insight into the floundering dairy industry it struck me that so many other creative, hardworking people distance themselves from the sales process and therefore find themselves in a similar boat.  The artist who gives away 40% of her painting’s value to a dealer.  The coffee farmer who sells his crop for pennies on the dollar to a commodities trader.  Even that poor sap in Russia who invented the Rubik’s cube.  I understand that sales is a complicated, stressful business but leave that part of your livelihood to someone else and you’re riding in the back seat of someone else’s car.

Over the course of my professional life here are some of the ways my own employers have taken the “easy” path to sales and the outcomes of those journeys:

  • A software company that decided to scale back direct sales and replace that with channel partners, i.e. bigger software companies who promised to sell our product as a bolt-on to their own.  The result?  Sales plummeted more than 60%.
  • A training company that in lieu of selling direct turned sales over to a third party booking agency.  The result?  A big fat $0.
  • A tech company that in lieu of selling direct turned sales over to a network of outside distributors.  The result?  You guessed it, zilch.

Certainly there are exceptions.  I’m sure the genius who invented the Thighmaster managed to bank a little coin along with the infomercial company that promoted it.  But c’mon, do you really want to be the Thighmaster guy who has no choice but to sit back and pray that some infomercial company can sell your product for you?

The good news is for many there’s a way out of this low profit death spiral.  Back to Jim Valent: “Even at a time when dairy farms are dropping like flies, some are doing very well.  These farmers are selling direct.  Farm fresh cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and milk straight from their farm to their neighbors’ doors.”

Whether you’re a farmer bypassing the grocery store network or Elon Musk bypassing the car dealer network, the premise is the same.  Stop counting on someone else to sell what you worked so hard to produce.  Do you really think a third party agency will ever share your passion and conviction for the product you created?

Is there a beautiful family farm in your community?  Imagine that one day your local Farmer Brown knocks on your door and says, “I stopped by to see if you’d be interested in subscribing to our new farm-to-table service.  Not only will you save yourself a trip to the grocery store but you’ll save my family farm, which is currently on the brink of getting paved over to make room for an Ollie’s Discount Dollar Store.” 
Which do you prefer, kind reader, farm fresh products from your neighbor’s beautiful farm or the breathtaking view of a next-door Ollie’s?

For this direct sale model to work two things have to happen.  One, you need to say yes to Farmer Brown’s offer.  The other, which I believe is far more unlikely, is that Farmer Brown needs to step beyond his comfort zone – the boundaries of his farm – and come knock on your door.  And for many farmers, craftsmen, artists, researchers,  and engineers this is more terrifying than the prospect of giving away 30% to 50%+ of their earnings to a sales mercenary.

If your sales model depends upon resellers, dealers, retailers, or distributors to push your product, reflect for a moment upon what’s happening to America’s dairy farms.  What risks do you, like these farms, face by distancing yourself from your product’s end users?  If you were to form a strong relationship with your end users and net higher profit margins from every unit you produce, how would that benefit you?  Other than fear of rejection, what’s holding you back from, just like Farmer Brown, crossing that scary border between your farm, workshop, studio, or factory and entering the real world where your customers are?

If you’re good at what you do, passionate about it, and convinced you can bring value to others, pick up the phone.  Knock on a few doors.  (Notice I did not say, “Build a website” or “post stuff on social media.”  Heck, I’m not even saying, “Set up a table at the trade show.”  Those passive efforts may support your direct sales efforts but you gotta get out there and grind down some shoe leather!  Dial the phone.  Canvas the town.  Knock on doors.)  You have more supporters out there than you realize.  We want to know you; we want to support you.  But we’re not going to step forward and speak with our wallets until you step outside the shadows of the broker or government agency on whom you’ve grown dependent.

Shark Attack? Oh, Please… You’re Already Interesting.

If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter you know there’s no caffeine more powerful than the dawn of a new day.  Something about the sight of the rising sun triggers our body to jolt upright and reawaken.  Navy SEAL candidates write about this phenomenon and how it inspires them to push through Hell Week.  Years ago I sometimes felt this instinctual surge after all-night snow removal shifts.  And I can only imagine the euphoria my friend, Eric, must have experienced when he sensed that rising sun lifting him and carrying him home.

Eric’s all-nighter, however, had nothing to do with a military exercise or a marathon work shift.  It was the final chapter in a quest that only 63 people have ever accomplished, the Molokai Channel swim.  Listed among the World’s Most Difficult Ocean Swims (above the English Channel, by the way), this jaunt between a couple Hawaiian islands has a reputation for strong currents, water depths exceeding 2,000 feet, and “aggressive marine life”.  It spans 26 miles – if you swim in a perfectly straight line, that is – and per Swimming Federation rules, prohibits the use of wetsuits or any protective gear save a swimsuit, goggles, and swim cap.

Eric planned this swim for months.  On second thought, he’s been planning this swim for years.  Eric and I first met nearly 25 years ago, back when he was already an elite cyclist and triathlete and I was just getting into those sports.  Neither of us was an outstanding swimmer but over the years Eric, always the continuous improvement freak, was constantly seeking tips in the form of videos, books, and coaching programs that helped us both improve.  He became my friend and swim mentor and has remained so ever since.

Over the years I’ve watched Eric raise a family, lead a family business, maintain incredibly high fitness levels, and eventually leave me is his world class distance swimming wake.  While I remain happy swimming a couple miles at a time, Eric transformed into a marathon swimmer taking on Herculean events exceeding 20 miles, often in numbingly cold waters, without a wetsuit.  This dude is not your run of the mill weekend warrior; he’s a lifelong disciple to extreme health and fitness.

The Molokai swim was to be his capstone event, a challenge guaranteed to test his mettle and elevate his standing in the distance swimming community.  And boy, did it.  But not in the way he envisioned.

High seas delayed his start to the event.  Instead of beginning at dawn he and a swim partner, Steve Gruenwald, another world class swimmer, entered the channel around 7pm.  Translation: The first half to two thirds of their swim would be in the dark of night.  Bright lights attract predator fish so Eric and Steve embarked on this World’s Toughest Swim in the dark, in rough seas, guided only by a faint red light on their guide boat and a couple of glow sticks.  I don’t know about you but I’m already scratching my entry under those conditions.

Six hours into their swim, both Steve and Eric had been stung by man o’ wars (incredibly painful, by the way) and Steve pulled out from seasickness.  Eric kept chugging along.  In Eric’s words:
“Nine hours into the swim I sensed the sun was soon rising, which gave me an extra boost.  A wave of calm swept over me and I knew I was gonna finish this thing.”

Imagine!  Nine hours of swimming through rough seas, in the dark, stung by man o’ wars…  and his primary feelings are elation and calm.  No that’s preparation.

But as Mike Tyson likes to say, Eric’s lifetime of perfect planning and preparation took a punch to the face.  Well, not a punch to the face, exactly, but rather a shark attack to the gut.

You can read about the attack here.  In short, a cookie cutter shark ripped a four inch chunk out of his abdomen.  Eric got pulled from the swim, rushed to the hospital where he spent days in serious condition, and he now faces several weeks of surgery and recovery.

Since the attack Eric has been showered with encouragement.  The prevailing message he’s hearing from supporters?  “Now you gotta write a book and go on a speaking tour!”

I’m sure that positive encouragement comes from a good place but as I’ve told Eric, the idea that he’s earned the right to write a book or preach from a stage because of one random, shitty moment irks me.  Yes, Eric, please write a book and go on a speaking tour but do so based on your life’s experiences and extraordinary choices, not because a shark bit you.

Eric, perhaps like you, doesn’t see himself as exceptional.  Yet you can bet your last dollar he has a story worth sharing.  How over 30 years ago he embraced alternative training methods that are just now coming to light.  How he and his wife raised two exceptional sons who are now grown and forging their own paths.  How he’s maintained a health and fitness lifestyle his entire adult life – fueled by alternative medicine – that rivals Jack Lalanne’s.  How he’s successfully reeled a third generation business back from the brink of ruin and kept it growing.  How he’s instilled in others, me included, an appreciation for Kaizen that drives us to enjoy the struggle of continuous improvement.

The point for Eric and the rest of us: Don’t wait until some random, unfortunate event bites you in the ass (or stomach) to tell your story.  Granted, your fight back from that unfortunate event can shape your story but don’t wait for a rock falling on your head or a bus weaving into your path to serve as the catalyst for telling it.  Whether you’re a world class athlete or stay at home mom or struggling addict or starving artist or insurance salesman makes little difference.  You, like Eric, are already interesting and there are people in your life who want to know more about you.

How many of us wish our ancestors, friends, and mentors, especially those no longer with us, had documented their story?  Not in the form of superficial Facebook posts but rather in the form of a self effacing book, interview, or recordings.  Imagine for a moment you’re browsing your local bookstore, the shelves lined with all the best sellers, and suddenly you come across an old, dusty book written by your grandparent entitled, “My Life”.

Which of those books are you gonna buy?  No brainer, right?

What are the questions you wish you could go back and ask the people who’ve been most influential in your life?  How about:

  • What’s the life accomplishment of which you’re most proud?
  • Your biggest regret?
  • Your best family memories?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Advice you’d offer the younger you?
  • The biggest setback you ever faced?
  • Your most exciting adventure?

You, like Eric, have a terrific story to tell and as much as answering that next email or posting that next selfie seems important, it isn’t.  Sharing your life story, on the other hand, is one of the most important and valued gifts you’ll ever create.

So yes, my good friend Eric, please tell us about your shark attack.  Challenge us to overcome obstacles, embrace hardship, and aim high.  But the next time someone encourages you to write a book or go on a speaking tour, please remember that long before you met a shark in Hawaii your story was already a best seller to the ones in your life who matter most.  Your body is healing; your story is forming; your sun is rising.

Be like Eric – LIVE your dream, CHASE a lofty goal, and most of all, SHARE your story.

Toyota: Unconventional Methods, Extraordinary Results

I hadn’t heard the song in more than a decade but the moment it came on I was back in my daughter’s nursery, placing her in her crib for a nap.  She loved that song, a lullaby that my wife and I would play for her by yanking a string on the back of her favorite stuffed animal.  Nothing fancy, just one of those short, simple tunes you’d hear if you cranked an old music box.

But I was far from my daughter’s nursery.  I was in Toyota North America’s Texas-based pickup truck factory.  This factory is massive: 2,000 acre campus, 2 million square feet, nearly 2,000 employees, and cranking out 200,000 vehicles/year.  (That’s about one pickup truck per minute, 24/7/365!)

In addition to being massive, it’s impeccable.  If Disney were in the auto manufacturing business, this is what their plant would look like.  Crisp lighting that rivals that you’d find in a Tiffany’s jewelry display.  Floors that are spotless.  Even bathrooms that Mickey himself probably cleaned.

But lullaby music?  There we were, surrounded by welding machines and grown men in hard hats, and on kicks my baby daughter’s crib music.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “What’s with the music?”

“Oh, yes!” replied one of Toyota’s manufacturing engineers, “That’s our signal that we’ve encountered unplanned downtime.”

UNPLANNED DOWNTIME?!?!  “Holy crap,” I thought, “All hands on deck!  Man your battle stations!  DEFCON One!”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last five years traveling North America’s industrial sector, it’s that unplanned downtime is a factory’s worst enemy.  There’s no faster way to lose profits and threaten worker safety than to have production lines come to a screeching halt. 

Yet here we were, in a factory where downtime costs can exceed $50,000 a minute, and everyone around me remained calm, kept smiling, and enjoyed a little lullaby music.  And as quickly as the song came on, it turned off and the production line kicked back into gear.

Now, let’s contrast that with how I’ve witnessed other industrial facilities respond to an unplanned downtime incident: Blaring sirens, angry bosses, scrambling workers, and the guilty party tossed into a pit of alligators.  (OK, maybe no alligators but you get my point.)

Human instinct is to up the tempo when things don’t go as planned.  Lost on your way to a meeting?  We drive faster and more recklessly.  Behind on production goals?  We ignore our fatigue and muscle through. 

But what would happen if, in that shit-hits-fan moment, we actually did the opposite?  What if instead of hitting the panic button we pulled that string on the back of my daughter’s stuffed animal? 

Toyota remains a world class company for many reasons, but that lullaby incident was a more poignant illustration of their unique approach than anything else I’ve witnessed at their company.  As a leader, how do you set the tone for calm amidst the storm?

Take a page from the Toyota playbook: Next time you or your team is tempted to hit the panic button, reach for that little stuffed animal with a string on its back.  Not only will you save yourself undue stress but you might get a nice nap out of the deal, too.

Your Most Valuable Commodity: Stop Wasting It

The claws of addiction had latched onto me.  Even on my best days I couldn’t go more than sixty minutes without another hit, even if it meant doing so in the middle of a customer meeting or during dinner with my family.  For some the vice is nicotine.  For others, hard drugs.  For me, my iPhone.

This little device travels with me everywhere and regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, its pings, rings, and chirps perk my ears like a gazelle who senses a creeping lion.  In those moments the world around me blurs and my internal radar hones in on that single sound.  Until I acknowledge its call, it’s hard for me to focus on anything else.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps you heard a Silicon Valley executive’s recent confession during an NPR interview: The world’s leading digital and social media companies (Facebook, Google, Apple, Instagram, etc.) employ Addiction Specialists.  These addiction experts know how to hook you through methods including gamification, page layout, color scheme, and ad placement.

It makes sense.  The more eyes glued to their app the more revenue they earn.  Every minute you spend forgoing the world around you in favor of their electronic interface is a minute they’ve captured the modern world’s most valuable commodity: your attention.  Yes, your undivided attention is what your kids, your spouse, your employer, your customers, your friends, your community, and sadly, your smartphone all covet.  And of all these parties vying for your attention, only one of them employs an Addiction Specialist who knows how to flood your brain with shots of dopamine.

Darn it!  I hate it when I’ve been duped and this little inanimate object snuck right up and bit me in the ass.

Digital addiction is real and the side effects read like the final ten seconds of those pharmaceutical commercials:

  • Depression,
  • Weight gain,
  • Feelings of anxiety,
  • Open mouth breathing*
    *OK, I added this last one but next time you see a group of people scrolling through their phones at an airport gate or a restaurant, check it out.  Gross.

A century ago Coca-Cola dabbled with addictive draws by lacing its beverage with cocaine.
Fifty years ago tobacco companies mastered the art of addiction through nicotine.
A decade ago we learned food companies are hooking us on sugar.
And today we discover smartphones are jumping on the addition bandwagon via engaging interfaces that (wrongly) convince us that whatever’s blaring on a digital screen is more attention worthy than the world around us – even when we’re driving.

How can we fight back?  Completely unplugging from the digital world may be unrealistic but here are four tactics I’ve employed that are helping:

  1. Kill auto-notifications.
    A good place to begin: your email. The default setting in Microsoft Outlook is for your computer to ping with a notification and pop-up window every time a note hits your inbox.  This is ridiculous.  Can you really afford to have your undivided attention diverted every time an email hits?  Turn that feature off.  (Same goes for text messages!)
  2. Work offline.
    The only time you should be accepting new emails is when YOU decide it’s time to do so. Outlook’s default setting is for your email to always be ON (are you seeing a pattern here?) so learn how to turn it OFF and work in offline mode.
  3. Every night, issue to your phone a Protection From Abuse order.
    Just as judges issue PFA’s to abusive spouses, be the judge who issues the same order every night to your phone. For me, that order hits at 7:30pm, at which point I lock it up until the next business day.  **Note: If your smartphone is within earshot of your bedroom you’re a sucker.
  4. Old School B&W
    Of all the tricks I’ve tried this one has surprisingly been among the most effective. Buried in your phone’s setting is a feature to drain all color and convert it into a black & white interface.  You’ll be amazed at how uninteresting your phone becomes when you drain its color.  Since making this switch a month ago, my senseless phone browsing has fallen more than 50%.
    **iPhone color hack: Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> Display Accommodations -> Color Filters “on”

 

Summing it all up in a powerful mantra: Be where your feet are.

Dull your smartphone, not your senses, and watch the world around you burst into living color.

Your Success = $100 Million and Counting

You may recall from a previous blog that my company set for 2017 its most aggressive target ever: $100 Million.  Not a SALES goal, mind you, but a CUSTOMER SAVINGS goal.

The premise:
By focusing on our customers’ success more than our own, the good karma would strengthen customer loyalty and increase business more than fancy advertising and pushy sales tactics ever could.

Eleven months ago the goal seemed impossible. For starters, we’d have to deliver to our customers an ROI that even the world’s greatest gambler could never imagine: 10X.  Give KCF $1 today and by year’s end you’ll get $10 in return.  In addition, we’d have to persuade our customers to share cost metrics that are often confidential.  Oh, and one other barrier: We had nowhere near enough customers or revenue to reach a 10X ROI of $100 Million.  Somehow, someway, we’d have to more than triple sales to have a shot at making it.

The last ten months have been fun but no picnic.  Major culture shift in how we interact with our customers.  Chasing down customer metrics that would typically be none of our business.  Shifting hiring criteria to align with a services-oriented approach.  The result?

On the day I’m writing this, November 11, 2017, our customers’ cup runneth over.  $100 Million in proven savings and rising fast.  Wow.

Paper mills reducing downtime.  Auto plants catching machine failures that’ve plagued them for decades.  Oil & Gas fleets running more cleanly and safely.  Chemical manufacturers optimizing their production process.

Since January our commercial customers have flooded us with more accolades, thank you cards, and sales orders than in the previous sixteen years combined.  And in honor of Veterans Day, one more tidbit: Nearly every penny of that $100 Million came from American facilities.  The takeaway for America: Give us a smart factory, strong leadership, and open-minded workers and we’ll dance circles around the old school, penny pinching, tax evading sweat shop trying to win on price.

How will we celebrate?  On Thursday December 7th we’re angling for a party that includes fireworks and a marching band.  This is Happy Valley after all!

Among those on the invitation list:

  • Our customers (of course)
  • Our employees and their families
  • Our company founders
  • Our government agency, military, and SBIR partners
  • Our suppliers
  • Our friends
  • Our community leaders
  • Our local fire department (if they’ll let us shoot off fireworks)

This Thanksgiving, my gratitude extends to the KCF Tech colleagues and customers who’ve proven what a cutting-edge Internet of Things strategy can do to awaken and revitalize American industry.  $100 Million may not be enough to move the needle on our nation’s GDP but it’s enough to indicate we’re on the right path.

How would your business grow if you fretted less over your own sales goals and more on your customers’ ROI?  If you begged your customers to teach you more about their pain points so you can figure out how to eliminate them?  Zig Ziglar said it best, “You can get anything in life you want if you just help enough other people get what they want.”

What do your customers want?  A better ROI?  Recognition?  A promotion?  A safer work environment?  Insight into how to do their jobs better?

Unlock that secret desire and watch the fireworks fly.

Speaking of fireworks, if you’d like to join our festivities on Thursday, December 7th at 4:00pm in State College, PA please drop me a line!

How a West Coast Hippie Rocked My World

Heir to a thriving family business in New York, this stunningly beautiful straight A student majored in Business at Bucknell University.  It was the final ingredient for a lifetime of grooming to return home and carry forward a third generation real estate brokerage.  No one better personified a young female version of Gordon Gekko.

Somewhere along the journey, however, Ms. Gekko transformed into Cat Stevens.  Instead of returning to New York, she moved into a hippie commune in Oregon, tossed the Gucci clothes in favor or earthen gowns, became an ardent vegetarian, and most significantly of all, she rejected a comfortable, secure business track to pursue full-time her passion for music.  Ah, take note of how I phrased that..  her passion for music, NOT her passion for the business of music.

Music became her life.  She performed anywhere she could: kindergarten classes, nursing homes, campfires, bars, casinos…  No venue was too small but over time the venues grew larger.  She was the opening act for several artists you’d definitely recognize and had agents chasing her to sign contracts and commercialize her talents.

Much to the chagrin of her family and hometown friends, however, this talented woman had zero interest in commercial success.  My guess  is she feared a focus on profits would spoil her passion’s purity.

Her commitment, though, came at a price.  For more than twenty years she faced hardships one associates with a starving artist: no shopping sprees, no savings plan, and to my kids’ horror, no Disney vacations.  The starving artist was making ends meet with part time work and self directed engagements that kept her music pure and her cupboards bare.

To be honest, I’ve often been frustrated by her choices.  “So much potential [to be more comfortable/more stable/more conforming/more beautiful/more “normal”].  Why is she squandering her education and connections on a passion that barely pays the bills?”

It’s easy to belittle those who choose an unconventional path and I’m embarrassed to say there are times I’ve been the belittler.

One person who never belittled the starving artist’s choices: her mother.

The artist’s mom could have voiced the most frustration.  After all, her daughter never applied her college degree.  Abandoned the hometown business.  Moved to a hippie commune 3,000 miles from home.  Chose a life that would make any parent worry.

Yet the mom sang only praise.  She marveled at her daughter’s musical talents.  Sat transfixed at every performance, throwing evil stares at anyone giving less than rapt attention.  Delighted at every song the artist released.

Mom’s superfandom was unwavering.  Mom looked beyond the odd choices and sacrifices and celebrated the artist’s commitment to her craft.  I, the skeptic, questioned the mother’s cheerleading and secretly wished she’d grab her daughter by the ear and yank her back to Planet Earth.

Just weeks ago, however, at cheerleader mom’s funeral – of all places -, my two decades of skepticism vanished in the span of three minutes.  The funeral was going through its normal paces when the artist rose to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  The church’s design is such that the choir is above and behind the congregation on a balcony, meaning the audience can hear but not see the performer.   (Picture a church version of the TV show The Voice.)

For the first time I was forced to listen, not watch, the artist’s live performance.  Instead of judging her unconventional wardrobe I paid attention only to her voice.  Instead of watching her performance through a fog of frustration I had only my ears to “see” her work.

And lemme tell you, her performance was otherworldly.  The range of her voice, its crispness, the absolute beauty of every note was unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a musician.  Ever.  As I glanced around the church I saw others equally mesmerized by that voice from above.  Heck, even the priest who moments earlier was practically dancing an Irish jig as he celebrated the departed’s “new seat next to Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven” was in tears as he absorbed the artist’s angelic work.

Now here’s the kicker: The congregation’s reaction to the artist’s performance was akin to only one other person’s reaction I’d ever witnessed.. that of the woman lying in the casket.

In that moment I realized her mom, older than I and for years fighting illnesses that sapped her health, had better vision than I.  While I’d spent twenty years fretting over the artist’s unconventional lifestyle and allowing my prejudices to taint my view, her mom was kind and loving enough to look beyond the asymmetry and embrace the artist’s true genius.

To my mother-in-law, Marian:
From beyond the grave – at your funeral! – you hit me over the head with a lesson I’ll always appreciate.  If you really are sitting shotgun alongside Jesus, I know you heard that performance, loved every second of it, and are smiling knowing that everyone in that church finally sees what you always did.

To my sister-in-law, Jennifer:

You’ve invested a lifetime sharpening a skill that until Marian’s funeral, I underappreciated.  I am humbled by your beauty and grateful for the performance that finally shook me free of my judgements.  Even if your musical talents never generate a dime, you gifted everyone in that church with a priceless performance that brought more value than the biggest real estate deal your family’s business will ever generate.

To you, kind reader:

Next time you encounter a struggling artist who’s sacrificing worldly comforts in pursuit of his/her unique interests, save yourself the years of heartache I heaped upon myself!  Look beyond your own boundaries and admire the unusual path he/she has chosen.
Oh, and if you’re ever at one of my sister-in-law’s live musical performances, give her your undivided attention or I’ll shoot at you the same evil stare my mother-in-law used to (rightfully) shoot at me.

My Bucket List Trip: Sailing Yachts and Flying Garbage Bags

The last time I’d seen that look on my wife’s face – a blend of horror, discomfort, excitement, confusion, and elation – she was in the throes of childbirth.  This time, however, the culprit was twenty five knot winds, driving rain, and eight foot seas.

“Hmmmm…” I mused, “Based on Jessica’s current state am I better off surviving this squall or immediately casting myself to the bottom of the ocean?”

Lucky for me, just as walking the plank was becoming the more prudent option the storm passed and we returned to crystal blue skies and shimmering tropical waters.

You may recall from a previous blog that this past winter I completed a sailing certification that licenses me to charter a yacht up to forty five feet long.  Last week, my family and I put that training to the test with an eight day sailing adventure in the British Virgin Islands.  Outside the occasional squall here are other reasons we could argue this trip was a disaster:

  • Within two hours of arrival Jessica lost her credit card and I lost my cell phone,
  • During one of the hottest weeks of the year we ended up on a boat with no A/C,
  • One of our daughters suffered heat exhaustion to the point we considered a hospital visit (note: Virgin Pina Coladas serve as excellent medicine),
  • No wifi!
  • The only weather report I could find on the CB radio was in Spanish,
  • I stepped on a thorn that sunk an inch into my foot,
  • At one point my bossy grumpiness triggered Jessica – rightfully so – to hurl a full garbage bag at my head.

For these reasons and more, our sailing excursion was an adventure the Lawrence family will relive, recount, and laugh about for years to come.  Imagine waking to gentle sea breezes, snorkeling through vibrant coral and tropical fish, dining while anchored next to pristine, abandoned beaches, island hopping aboard your own private ship, and watching your kids bond through a week without electronics.

A disastrous vacation?  Certainly not.

This adventure was exactly what our family needed: Fun + Adversity + Education + Unpredictability + Laughs + Natural Beauty + Culture + Lifetime Memories.  Yes, you might pack most of these items into a visit with Mickey Mouse but trust me, a Caribbean sailing adventure brings life and color in ways you’ve never before experienced.

A special Thank You to Offshore Sailing School for preparing me for this trip.  You never know how much you’ve learned until you’re forced to apply it, and even through rough seas and flying garbage bags your training kept me calm and my family safe 🙂

Gambling Addiction: How My Customer Saved Me from It

I’ve never spent a dime at the racetrack but I’ve lost millions on racehorses.  Over the last twenty five years I’ve thrown money at over a thousand of ‘em, and fewer than 20% have brought a positive return.  Fewer than 2% have truly hit the big time, and it’s those 2% that have more than covered the funds squandered on the other 98%.  Some years I’ve gotten ahead, some years I’ve lost my shirt, and damn near every year this roller coaster ride puts my stomach in knots.

On what type of racehorse do I habitually gamble?  Salespeople.  Yes, a smattering of engineers, operations, management, and other roles but it’s the salesperson on whom I’ve most often rolled the dice.

Sales in a tricky business.  There’s no formal degree associated with it so anyone is technically “qualified” to give it a try.  Past success does not guarantee future success.  Prior experience, technical expertise, or deep product knowledge is a curse as often as it’s a blessing.  And the #1 wild card: Almost anyone is capable of pulling off a decent enough job interview to convince me they might have what it takes.

I’ve hired MBA’s, Ivy League honors students, military heroes, star athletes, and business owners who’ve failed miserably.  Conversely, I’ve gambled on convicts, illegal immigrants, high school dropouts, and strippers who’ve crushed their numbers and earned more than any of the aforementioned superstars.  To date, my educated guesses have netted roughly the same results as a blindfolded monkey tossing darts at a wall of resumes.

Two and a half decades of doing this and I still can’t seem to crack the code.  Sound familiar?

Last week I attended a workshop in Texas with Michael Hall from Culture Index, a brilliant entrepreneur and facilitator who brings to job recruiting the same Moneyball data analytics that Billy Bean brought to Major League baseball.  In six minutes his system measures one’s profile and tells you whether the job available is a good match for the applicant.  There are tons of screening tools that make similar claims but without going into all the details I can tell you Michael and his system impress me the most, and our company is partnering with him for all current and prospective employees.

Will Michael deliver my company a perfect gambling record?  Of course not.  But if he doubles our hit rate from 2% to 4% of the racehorses we hire, the upside to us and our customers is extraordinary.

My favorite thing about Michael and his company is how we came across it.  Wasn’t a magazine article or a sales call or a Google search or a TV show but rather a customer.  While many companies engage in us vs. them, beat-them-down-‘til-they-relinquish-ever-penny-of-profit vendor negotiations, this customer continually looks for ways to offer value to my team and me.  In this case, they generously extended an invitation to my company to join their executive team for Michael’s workshop.

This company knows what you may have forgotten:
Earning the best service, the fastest delivery, and the lowest price comes from offering value and friendship to the same “adversaries” most negotiators are trained to ravage.

In a way, this special customer has done for me what only 2% of sales racehorses ever learn to do for themselves: They listened to my needs (in this case, how to effectively recruit into our fast growing company the best people) and offered me a solution, even though my need is not directly related to their products/services and immediate profits.  At a time this company could have just kept its head down, focused entirely on its own recruiting needs, and called me only when they needed something or wanted a lower price, they thought beyond themselves and offered me insight into how to improve my business.

Does your company have a team of razor-toothed Procurement Officers responsible for negotiating the best service and lowest price from your vendors?  If so, here’s a list of questions I challenge you to ask them:

  • What are our vendors’ top barriers to success?
  • How are we earning loyalty from our top vendors in a way that makes them excited to do business with us?
  • What’s something low cost yet high value we can implement, like a talent recruiting workshop, that will help us and our vendors?

Think back to the last time you were in the “dominant” buyer position.  Whether you were shopping for a new multi-million dollar software system, a car, or a pair of shoes, how did you treat the salesperson?  How much respect did you offer and to what extent were you focused on helping them?  I know it’s counterintuitive but believe me, after all these years on the vendor side I promise that your flash of genuine interest, friendliness, or spirit of service will earn you better treatment and price than anything you’ll learn in a coercive negotiation seminar.

Want proof?

While my average customer sees a 300% ROI on its investment with our company (good), the customer that included my team in their recruiting workshop is approaching 1,000% ROI (mind blowing).

Thank you, Buddy, Jamie, and the rest of team FTSI for your generous partnership.  You guys are the pinnacle of elite racehorses, and my company and I are all in on any bet that includes you.

 

Dumb Mistake? Brilliant Move.

Who in your life puzzles you the most? Your spouse? Your boss? Your president?

For me it’s my brother Matt. For starters, he’s a PhD engineer with exceptional communication and human relation skills. I know lots of brilliant engineers and lots of talented communicators but both in one person? Harder to find these days than Richard Simmons.

Matt’s married (to a lawyer, of course) with three boys, lives atop a cold, windy mountain in NY State, and tends by himself all 75 acres of land that surround him. He built his own house, cuts his own firewood, hunts and grows his own food, has no TV, and insists on driving total crap cars that he services on his own. You get the picture? Smart, charming guy with a storybook family who could breeze through life but chooses instead to spend his free time laboring like a protagonist from Grapes of Wrath.

Spring Break is a perfect example of Matt the Enigma, as the rest of our family escapes to sunny Florida while Matt chooses to stay home and struggle through a miserable process: making maple syrup. Have you ever done this? It’s novel to tap a couple maple trees and boil a little sap into a spoonful of syrup but go beyond a short afternoon activity with the kids and it turns into a frigid, smoky, sleep depriving slog. Trust me, unless you have the latest equipment and technology (which, of course, Dr. Matt does not), syrup making absolutely sucks compared to a week of R&R in Florida.

For days he taps trees, collects sap, stokes a fire day and night, and slowly boils down over a hundred gallons of sap into a few gallons of sweet nectar, all while his loyal wife gazes out at the snowy landscape and checks in on how the rest of the family is enjoying the beach. (Renee, You are a saint.)

After days of misery Matt’s ready for the finishing touch, draining those few gallons of precious syrup from the boiling pan into a jar. Imagine Matt’s satisfaction as he gently pours his warm, delicious, hard-earned syrup into the jar, knowing he’s forged with his own hands a year’s worth of delicacy.

Why, then, did the Lawrence family’s only-ever PhD end up last week on his hands and knees, buried in the snow, face covered in a sticky mess, howling like an angry wolf that had just lost its prey? Because after all those hours, all that work, all that misery, my kid brother chose to set his jar on an uneven surface. Just as he’d poured the last drop of syrup into the jar, he caught a glimpse of his mistake. To his horror, the jar toppled over and his syrup disappeared beneath the snow.

Oh, the agony! In Matt’s words: “For a second I just stood there, mouth agape, not believing the tragedy I’d just witnessed. Then I fell to my knees and madly began scooping the snow back into the pan in hopes I could salvage some of the syrup. Well, that wasn’t working at all so I figured, “What the hell. Either I gorge myself right now or I’ll never get a taste.””
So down he went, face buried in the snow, gorging for all he’s worth on his self-made maple syrup snow cone.
Back to Matt: “When I finally surfaced, my hands and face were covered in sticky snow and I had the worst ever ice cream headache.”
At least I think that’s what he said because by this part of the story we were laughing so hard neither of us could breathe.

Perhaps like me you grew up with a brother who never had to study, always aced his tests, breezed through college, and can do more with a crescent wrench than you can do with Home Depot’s entire inventory. If that’s the case, then you know I took ZERO pity on a moment of dumbass that made me feel I still have a chance in a battle of wits.

Well, brother Matt, thank you for the flash of dumbo. Even if only for a moment, you gave your brother a sense that maybe, just maybe, you’re a real human being.

To my readers, what can we learn from my brother? For one, gravity always wins. Two, leave the maple syrup process to the experts. Three, show your human side! I gotta tell you, self-deprecating stories about your innocent failures win more hearts than anything you can share about your perfections.

Whatever satisfaction our family woulda gotten from that syrup is nothing compared to the laughter and lessons we learned from my brother’s disaster. Fail often and laugh it off, and I’ll bet you go through life with more smiles and more friends than Mr. or Mrs. Perfect ever will.

Sailing Through Christmas: What Will You Learn?

When I was a kid my dad came home one day with a beat up sailboat strapped down in the back of his work van. I think it was in lieu of payment for some carpentry work but given its condition it’s just as likely he pulled it out of a dumpster. Regardless, we patched it together and occasionally took it out on a small nearby lake. I loved it! Something about harnessing Mother Nature’s wind power and gliding across the water made our little journeys feel like big adventures.

In those same years, my uncle in Annapolis, MD became a yacht broker and would share tales of the mammoth boats he sold and the grand exploits upon which their owners would embark. For a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the lifestyle seemed as unworldly to me as flying to Mars but I dreamed of one day getting a taste of it.

Fast forward through college, marriage, career, and kids and a few decades later the itch to experience high level sailing remained unscratched. Last week, however, my generous and supporting wife and kids gave me a pass to indulge in a sailing adventure I still cannot believe was real. For eight days a few other students and I traveled to Florida and lived aboard a forty five foot sailing yacht where we were drilled on nautical principles, vocabulary, laws, and techniques. Our captain and instructor, Rick, is a retired sailing professional who’s been captaining boats longer than I’ve been alive. Short of a parrot on his shoulder and a patch on his eye, he possesses all the vigor and veracity you’d expect from a lifelong seaman.

The certification program is no joke. Every day you’re challenged to learn new concepts and apply them with hand-on exercises. It’s humbling to be a forty four year old guy as unfamiliar and out of his element as a sixteen year old learning to drive a stick shift. Sure, I’d read a few how-to books in advance of the excursion but having a theoretical understanding of how to reef a sail is a heck of a lot different from actually doing it under twenty five knot winds and four foot seas. Did we make mistakes? Tons of them. Did we learn from them? You betcha.

Eight days later our motley crew returned to the harbor with sore backs, sunburned faces, calloused hands, and – miraculously – a boat in one piece. And you know what else we brought back from this adventure? A brand new skill set, a sense of accomplishment, and a certification to charter a sailing yacht up to fifty feet long.

Am I now a sailing expert prepared to cross the Atlantic? Not even close. But I am confident that my wife, kids, and I can charter a boat in the beautiful British Virgin Islands and enjoy an experience that just might bring the same euphoria that dad’s dumpster boat brought me all those years ago.

To Offshore Sailing School, my fellow students Charlie, Richard, and Crystal, and to Captain Rick I offer a Thank You for a terrific learning experience. To you, my kind reader, I offer a challenge. What’s a skillset that intrigues you? What’s a bucket list item that you’ve long dreamed of experiencing but haven’t explored? This holiday season, forego the gifts under the tree and replace them with a learning experience that expands your comfort zone and instills fresh confidence. And if there are any guinea pigs out there – preferably strong swimmers – who are willing to “practice” with Captain Ben, I’m delighted to deputize you as a first mate 🙂

Wishing you a Happy Holidays!