Sharper Than Google, Wiser Than I

It started with a YouTube video.  This one, in fact, which for whatever reason drew me in like a moth to a flame.  It looked so fun, so satisfying to take a small block of wood, pare it down on a lathe, and presto! – out pops a beautiful wooden ring as unique as a snowflake.  I eagerly bought the necessary tools and followed the video’s instructions to a T, so why was I failing?

In my basement with lathe whirling and sawdust flying I’d carefully do exactly as instructed and bam!  At some point the ring block would shatter.  Bits of wood flying everywhere and my colorful expletives right on their heels.  I tried different tools, different lathe speeds, and different angles but suffered the same frustrating result.

“Damn it!” I said to myself.  “I really want to learn how to do this but I’m stuck.” 
And given my impatient nature I knew I had to figure this out soon or this endeavor was going nowhere.

When you’re stuck on a problem, where do you turn?  I tried the same avenues you might: Google, YouTube, even called a couple vendors who make woodturning tools but as you may find when turning to the internet or customer service lines, the responses were confusing and of little help.  So I went to the one resource often overlooked but usually full of answers: old guys.

In this case, Fred Hill, a retired (yet vibrant!) professor who’s been perfecting his woodworking skills longer than I’ve been tying my own shoes.  Fred has three valuable traits that you and I may not have yet earned: wisdom, experience, and patience.

Fred and I met last weekend in his woodshop, where we embarked on a quest to make the wooden rings that had alluded me.  And while we blocked several hours for this lesson, within five minutes Fred discovered the root cause of my angst.

“Needs sharpening.”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Your tool.  It’s dull.  Needs sharpening,” he repeated.
“C’mon, Fred, these are brand new tools.  The tools are fine.”

Fred, without saying another word, approached me, gently pulled the tool from my hand, and spent sixty seconds honing its edge on his grinding wheel.  And from that moment forward, Fred and I cranked out the most beautiful rings you’ve ever seen.

You see, it wasn’t about the best tools or the strongest grip or the highest quality materials; the secret lay in how sharp the tool was.  Even the slightest flaw on that cutting edge and the rings were sure to shatter.  And for some strange reason neither the internet nor the tool vendor nor I, the impatient rookie, had called out this most obvious flaw.

How often do we set our tools to our work – our nose to the grindstone, if you will – without first ensuring our blades are as sharp as they need to be?  Like me, how often do you give a presentation or hammer out emails or make a sales call without the slightest consideration for the style you’re using or the grammar you’re employing?  Or muddle through the same old workout with sloppy form?

Next time you’re falling short of the result you desire, think of my new friend Fred.  Would he, or his senior counterpart who’s spent a lifetime mastering the discipline you’re pursuing, take one look at your flailing attempt and declare, “Needs sharpening”?  Just a little extra time sharpening our tools might be all it takes to transform failure into fulfillment.

Abe Lincoln said it best:  “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Final note:
My time with Fred reminded me that in this COVID era we’re losing our most seasoned mentors at an alarming rate, including my stepfather-in-law, a military pilot and prolific storyteller who survived getting shot down in Vietnam and a fight with cancer but couldn’t overcome this blasted virus.  Every time we lose a senior who’s still got lots to give, which is just about every one of ‘em, we lose a pool of wisdom and insight that’s yet to be fully tapped by those of us who need them. 

Where in your life are you not getting the results you want?  Beyond the fitful, muddled world of Google, how much effort have you made to meet the real-world senior expert in your community who could guide you to success?  Seek them out.  Befriend them.  Thank them for sharing their guidance.  And for God’s sake wear a mask.

Fred Hill working his magic with a sharp tool.
Thank you, Fred!
Fruits of labor

College Gap Year or Something Better?

Where did you learn the most in college – in the classroom or outside of it?  Which parts of the college experience stuck with you the most? 

For me and most others I ask, most of college’s education and memories happened outside the classroom.  Sure, there were flashes of enlightenment in some classrooms (Ithaca College’s finest, Marty Brownstein, You’re still the best!) but the vast majority of the life skills I gleaned sprang from late night parties, unusual roommates, and the countless mistakes I made trying to figure out life beyond my parents’ house.  And though I left college twenty five years ago, living in a college town has afforded me the insight to see the same basic college experience exists today.  Or at least it did until COVID showed up.

Now we’re seeing the college experience turned on its head, which is unfortunate timing for my daughter, Madeline, and the other high school class of ’20 grads embarking on the college journey amidst a fog of uncertainty.

For the last few months, Madeline, her mom/my wife, Jessica, and I have been jumping on periodic Zoom calls with her chosen college’s admissions office to stay abreast of their fall semester plans.  Funny, I haven’t been sold so hard since Jessica and I attended a vacation property timeshare pitch.  “We’ll keep your child safe!”  “Our professors are ready for anything!”

The implied message: “Please don’t bail on us.  We need your money.”  And with the price of college having skyrocketed at double the inflation rate since I was a student, the money colleges seek from my pocket and my daughter’s loans is significant.

Boil all those Zoom calls down and here’s what Madeline and other incoming students face:

  • Limited social activities,
  • Abbreviated orientation,
  • No roommates,
  • Limited dining hall access,
  • Shortened semester,
  • Minimum 50% classes online,
    …and the kicker…
  • No discount.

Add it all up and we envision Madeline and her classmates sitting in lonely dorm rooms eating prepackaged dining halls food and watching grainy videos of classroom professors trying to navigate a digital interface.

Which begs the question, is this a good investment?  Will Madeline and her peers gain as much value from this pared down offering?  For Madeline, the answer is no.  She’s opted for a gap year but even that is challenging given the typical 18 year old’s urgency to live independently in the thick of travel restrictions.

Yet opportunity lies within every challenge, so Madeline is planning an unusual path that (perhaps?) sets a new precedent for recent high school grads.  How does this sound to you?

  • Our family has saved some money for Madeline to earn a four year college degree but not enough to support four years of college and a gap year.
  • For the Fall ’20-Spring ’21 school year, Madeline will take online college courses with an accredited school that specializes in online delivery (Southern New Hampshire?  Strayer?  Many from which to choose)
  • During this period, the money that would’ve covered college room and board she’ll instead use to rent a small apartment in whichever geographic area she chooses.
  • After a two week quarantine, she’ll explore that area while working a part-time job.
  • She and at least one of her high school class of ’20 friends on a similar track will room together.
  • Provided the “normal” college experience returns next year she’ll transfer her credits over and enter a sophomore OR if she likes the online/travel approach, she can continue for all four years, bouncing semester to semester or year to year to anywhere on Planet Earth she’d like (and her mom approves, of course😊)

The most surprising part of the plan:  Even if Madeline earns her bachelor’s degree via an online platform while traveling the world for four straight years, the experience will cost less than the ‘traditional” college experience she’d been planning.

So, kind reader, which path would you choose for yourself or for your Class of ’20 high school grad?  Which experience offers the best education and life skills – four years planted at one school or four years roaming from place to place?

If there’s a silver lining to this COVID crisis, perhaps it’s the chance we all have to press the reset button.  A moment to step back and ask, “Am I on the right path?  Is there a better way to do this?”

No question our family would be more settled seeing Madeline glide into the college experience we envisioned but perhaps her journey, like yours and mine, will prove most exciting when we step off the beaten path and take the path less traveled.



Congrats, Madeline and the high school Class of 2020! You are blazing new trails.

Coronavirus: A Note to America’s Industrial Workers

If you’re an American Industrial worker, you’re likely facing more pressure this week than ever. You’re hearing, “Speed up production.  Deliver on time.  Avoid downtime.  Step up your pace, do it quickly, and don’t make any mistakes.” 
Whether you manufacture tissue products, cleaning agents, food, pharmaceuticals, or one of several other products, you’ve gotta crank up the pace amidst extreme expectations to reach record production levels.  Same goes for utilities, power generation, and other key industrial functions that cannot afford to shut down for a two week quarantine hiatus.
This is no time for the meek, and you are not the meek.

I’m writing you with three requests:

  1.  Be safe.
    In the heat of the moment we all tend to move faster and more recklessly.  Please fight that urge!  You are at your best when you’re careful, thoughtful, and deliberate.  Everyone is cheering for you to pull through this production frenzy in one piece.

  2. Ask for help.
    You may not realize it but your friends, family, neighbors, and community appreciate the extra hours and burden you’re taking on.  Can we cut your grass?  Walk your dogs?  Pick up groceries?  FaceTime a few jokes?
    You’re doing more than your share.  Let others pitch in, too.  Heck, your community is full right now of derelict kids on extended school breaks and parents desperate to put them to work.  Don’t be shy, ask your neighbors to pitch in.

  3. Contact my company or me.
    Like you, your plant’s machinery is stressed, working overtime, and more prone to breakdowns.  You don’t have the time right now to monitor the health of your critical machines, but KCF does.
    To be clear, this is not a solicitation to buy anything.  Rather, this is our company’s genuine offer to ship key American Industrial sites, at no cost, the sensors and remote monitoring services that’ll keep your critical assets running and put our American communities in the best position to beat back Coronavirus
    KCF Tech’s website will post more details shortly but bottom line:  KCF has the capacity to help and this is how we’re choosing to do so.  Whether you need our help for 6 days 6 weeks, contact me and we’ll immediately get to work.

Your work has always been important and it’s even more so now.  American Industry has stepped up in the past and we’re honored to support your efforts to transform this crisis into a shining example of American might.

A nice reminder that your production superpowers run deeper than you might imagine:
 “In 1944, each American airplane factory worker more than doubled the output of his/her German counterpart and quadrupled the output of his/her Japanese counterpart, and American industry was moving a war plane on the runway every five minutes.”  (https://www.commonlit.org/en/texts/how-american-industry-won-world-war-ii )

Our parents, grandparents, and community elders set the precedent.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and prove that American Industry is alive and well!

Your Teenage Daughter’s Birthday? Thank You, SMS!

10,000 repetitions.  That’s the number of times I’ve read is necessary to reach mastery.  Based on that calculation I should be a master twice over.  Yet this past Friday, Black Friday for you crazed shoppers, I was as nervous as if this were my first rep.  Was I practicing karate kicks?  Handstands?  Nope, I was on the precipice of making my 20,001st sales call (not scary) to an otherworldly being alien to me (scary).

25 years in sales has given me the opportunity to call on every audience imaginable: small business owners, Fortune 500 executives, Realtors, factory workers, engineers, government officials, auto dealers, homeowners…  But never the mysterious demographic on my target list last Friday – a Social Media Sensation (SMS).  Truth be told, the only reason I even know the term SMS is because I’ve heard my teenage daughters reference them.  Limited research tells me that in order to be an SMS one must: A) post unusual, emotional, or animated clips to the internet, B) possess no inhibitions, and C) have thousands of online followers, none of whom are old enough to drive.

What prompts a middle aged guy with no Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Tik Tok, or Instagram to call on an SMS?  Simple, his daughter’s birthday wish.

Jacqueline’s always been drawn to celebrity performers, be it Justin Bieber in her early years (she’ll kill me for this but check out her JB performance from 10 years ago) or Harry Styles in her adolescent years but heading into her 16th birthday she’s gone all in on Jack Novotny, a teenager building a strong online presence.  His thousands of followers span the globe but coincidentally, Jack lives in the same village in Western NY State as my parents.  How do we know?  Because while walking through town on Thanksgiving, Jacqueline exclaimed, “Eeeeek!  That’s Jack Novotny’s house!  I recognize it from his videos!”

Jacqueline is too thoughtful to storm Jack’s house, invade his privacy, and beg for a selfie but her dad?  Hmmmmm……

I wanted to approach Jack on the down-low but how does one with no social media accounts contact a social media star?  Email?  Please, we’re talking about someone under the age of 20.  Phone book?  Even more preposterous.

And so it was on Black Friday morning that I, a social media luddite, found himself standing alone on Jack’s porch, knocking on his door, and hoping the family isn’t a posse of Second Amendment fanatics.

Fortunately, Jack’s lovely mother approached the door unarmed and seemed as astonished as I that A) a social media sensation lived in her village, and B) that individual is her son.  Funny how this new wave of celebrity originates; without talent agents or PR firms or billboards, the last to appreciate a rising star are those closest to him.

On the same day as my house call and during Jacqueline’s 16th birthday party, Jack Novotny – and his curious mom, of course – made a house call of their own.  To Jacqueline’s shock, humiliation, and extreme delight, Jack marched into my parents’ house, presented Jacqueline with her birthday cake, and posed for pictures with our family.

Jack could not have been more gracious and his surprise visit lit up Jacqueline’s face more than an entire Walmart’s worth of birthday candles.  And of all the sales calls I’ve ever made, this one brought more satisfaction than any other.

*To Jack Novotny and his mother, thank you for generously sharing your time and attention.

*To my mom, Thank you for planting this idea in my head when you whispered the day before, “If I had Jack’s number I’d call him right now.”

*To every sales manager who’s coached me on how to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for something, thank you for teaching me the skills required to do it right.

*And to you, kind reader, a few takeaways that might earn you a big contract or a surprise celebrity encounter:

  • Even in today’s world, human, in-person calls trump digital communication. 
    Connect with the human, not the human’s digital interface.

  • When knocking on someone’s door, do not stare directly into the house.  That’s creepy. 
    Instead, keep your gaze to the side and keep your hands out of your pockets where the other person can see them.

  • Goes without saying but dress appropriately! 
    My gosh I still see salespeople and solicitors dressed like they just rolled outta bed, which is not inspiring anyone to answer your call.

  • In all things at all times: smile.
    Your expression drowns out your words.

  • When all else fails, ask their mother.
    Your prospect may have no interest in what you’re seeking but if Mom says it’s OK, the rest falls into place.

Sure, 20,000 sales calls boosted my confidence to make the 20,001st but please understand – You don’t need 20,000 sales calls under your belt to make the exciting happen, you just need to make the one that’s next in front of you.

Happy 16th, Jacqueline!  So proud of the young woman you’ve become and the challenges you throw my way.

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.