Get one idea

It seems as though I am always consuming content. A nonstop treadmill of daily news, ideas-based podcasts, audiobooks, books books, documentaries, reality television and the fictional worlds of Bobby Axelrod and John Dutton. It’s a lot.

When I pull in content my goal isn’t to learn every concept that is explained or remember every single date and nail the timeline, it is to understand milestones — the big picture. Sometimes, depending on where my head is or what I’m involved in with work, I get something completely different out of content than I would if my context was different. This happens a lot and is why there are certain articles and books that I reread regularly when my context changes.

Regardless of when I read something, my goal is to get a single idea out of it — something that I can use or something that clarifies another idea that I have already noted. I tend to group my reading around themes in order to get a wider viewpoint. For example if I’m reading about climate change I’ll group articles, books and podcasts together and then read and listen to them in succession. I try to bring in contrasting viewpoints in order to balance my thinking. Depending on the subject my views are my views (especially around the climate) but it is solid practice to hear the other side. You will learn something that either reinforces your viewpoint or opens up an opportunity for more exploration.

Learning shouldn’t be a stressful endeavour when you are doing it for personal growth. I don’t put any pressure or timeframes on when I should know a subject because it is a process. One book, one article, one podcast at a time until you’ve got enough perspective to have your own earned opinion. When the world moves as fast as it does and content can be created and distributed as quickly as it is, knowing how to build an opinion one idea at a time — slowly and deliberately — is essential. I once worked for a CEO who read business articles and switched our company strategy based on them. We bounced from the latest thing to the latest thing making no headway and, eventually the company failed (for many other contributing reasons but lack of clarity was one of the top ones). The lesson is to extract an idea from everything you ingest but do it to build upon what you already know.

It’s not complicated. Bring in content. Chew on the fat. Disregard the rest. Repeat. Doing this starts to fill the gaps in knowledge, confidence and expertise. The key is to start with the first idea.

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

Fight for your people

Imagine having a baseball team with two future Hall of Fame players on it during the same season. Then picture that team stacked with perennial all-stars and a 74-40 record (best in the major leagues) and heading into the second half of August with a 6 game lead on the Atlanta Braves. That was the Montreal Expos right as the strike killed the season, the World Series and the future of the team. They finished with a winning record only 3 more times over the following 10 years before they were folded up and became the Washington Nationals (who then took 16 more years to win the World Series).

So what happened?

People. By the time the next season started they had traded most of the anchor talent away for next to nothing in return and eventually the team fell into ownership issues and everyone else was traded for beer and cigarette money. It was a self-fulfilling circle of doom and the team and city suffered through it — all due to bad management and terrible owners.

What if…

It’s easy to play armchair GM in retrospect. Had the team been able to keep their core together a little longer or the strike not happen, perhaps that team would have been able to win and start a run similar to what the Yankees did a few years later. The difference was that the Yankees were able to keep their core intact — most of that core were to become future Hall of Fame members as well. Winning is essential for a small market team who’s fans are not passionate about the sport unless they win. Montreal is that city and the Expos had their chance but circumstances and bad management blew it.

People are it.

The cost of letting their people go was the team itself. First it was the faith of the crowd, then it was the faith of the players, then it was the faith of creditors and then it was the faith of the league. The franchise was lost when the players weren’t valued. The Expos became known as being the league’s farm system. Great players earned their stripes and then were unloaded when they hit their prime because the team couldn’t afford (read: planned poorly) to keep them. Those core players that were released or traded went on to win and succeed and form the core of other teams and, eventually two of them ended up enshrined in Cooperstown. Many of those players wear World Series rings but with the wrong team logos embossed on them.

Companies make the same mistake

That 1994 Montreal Expos was a team of all-stars and were poised for a dynasty run. I’ve worked with many companies stacked with the equivalent talent and have watched them all walk out the door for almost the same reasons, some with similar devastating results. Where incremental concessions from the company are seemingly impossible to negotiate or the bureaucracy too challenging to get through. People leave at tremendous cost in dollars to replace and train new people, employee psyche and confidence in leadership. Companies operate at the behest of people and the great ones will be great wherever they end up. It should be the company’s responsibility to try to keep them. Period.

The business advantage over baseball

As we are witnessing today, baseball has devolved into a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire players over money. There doesn’t seem to be any joy left to be had in that game for anyone — including a dissolving fan base. Businesses have an advantage because they can show their humane side by offering benefits where pay increases can’t be accommodated. Simple things like transportation, meals, WFH, shifted schedules, fitness memberships, free coffee — small value items with big impact on employee happiness. Hell, even just TRYING to accommodate change and fighting for employees goes a long way in creating a core team dedicated to the fight.

It isn’t easy to keep a team of all-stars together. They are bound to leave at some point because of who they are. But to have a stacked team and not try to do whatever is necessary to win with them sets the tone for the current team and limits the possibilities of attracting and keeping future all stars. Great people want to work with other great people. They also want to work for an organization that will fight for them.

You’ve seen where this ended up for the Montreal Expos. Their history has been erased because their ownership didn’t value their people. Don’t do the same.

*Image credit: PHIL CARPENTER / The Gazette

A guy like me

When I was younger, in my early 20’s or thereabouts, and starting my first technology business, I was seeking advice and building my network. After each meeting with someone I would ask if they could make a recommendation of anyone else I should meet within the community. Invariably they would always say someone older and close to retirement age (at least they seemed that way to me!).

It was weird. Here I was, young, on the forefront of a massive technology revolution (something called the Internet) and they wanted me to speak to fossils. Business people that faxed and dictated memos. I had followed up on a number of those referrals only to have my beliefs reinforced when they would ask me “why we need the Internet when we have TV and radio and newspapers”…it was time to move on.

I was asking the wrong questions

As I moved from intro to intro it dawned on me that I was clearly not going about this the right way. There had to be a reason that everyone was referring me to the same bunch of old people. It wasn’t an accident and each person was incredibly successful. That’s when it dawned on me that I was asking the wrong questions. They didn’t need to understand the shifts in the business landscape. They didn’t need to digest the underpinnings of the technology that was moving the bytesphere. They understood how to build a business. They knew how to avoid the many mistakes that I was about to make. They knew where to focus and what to ignore. In short, they knew how to run a business.

As soon as I reframed my behaviour I began to ask the right questions. They weren’t specific to the actual product I was trying to sell, they were fundamentals on how to sell, grow, hire, lead, market and manage. This is the common language of business that a stubborn young founder needed to know in order to succeed — or at least not make avoidable mistakes.

They were like I am now

They didn’t have all the answers at the time and there were still plenty of mistakes that were made on my end before the lessons sunk in. Sometimes this is just the unavoidable human trait of stubbornness. I am now at the age and experience level of the same people that I asked for guidance 30 years ago and I get it. It’s not one thing that changes over night, you don’t suddenly see the answers to things that have plagued you along the way. It has become a repertoire. A menu of skills. Subconscious and present. All those conversations over the years, the advice, the mistakes, the testing and way finding is in there ready to be brought forward to help.

Doing it versus reading about it

I’ve had the great privilege to travel extensively around the world for joy and I’m now bringing that expansive thinking to my kids. Nothing cements something more than experiencing it. Making the book come to life. We were in Paris the summer before Notre Dame was severely damage by the fire. When that dominated the news my kids felt it because they had touched it, understood its history and importance. You can get that from a book but the experience of being there makes it real. This is the power of experience.

The same thing can be said about building and running a business. You can read many books and articles, listen to podcasts and watch documentaries all you want but the real world often needs tactile experience. A balance of book learning and real learning makes things stick. Following someone else’s game plan from a page and a moment in history may motivate but it does not replace the need for experience.

The path of an entrepreneur is never linear. There are many highs and many lows but the goal is to balance those in order to make progress. Moving forward means spending less time in a manic state of up and down. A guy like me and those that I have relied on during my 30+ years in business help round down the peaks and round up the valleys to spend more time in the middle — where the growth happens.

Never confuse movement and action

After most dinners, my kids ask for the natural nightcap to a great meal — dessert. We go through a back and forth that usually sounds like this:

Me: “How many steps have you taken? You know the rule, if you don’t hit your step goal there is no dessert.”

Them: “Uh”

My wife: “Go run around the yard 10 times and you can have dessert.”

So off they run, gleeful that a small amount of running will get them a fine bowl of ice cream. This is, quite frankly, the ONLY time that running in circles will get you anything.

There is such an important distinction between movement and action but it sometimes gets lost in the motion. We are often “too busy” to take a minute to understand if what we are doing is movement for the sake of it or action with purpose.

We all have a finite amount of time to work on something. That thing could take an hour, a year or a lifetime of effort to accomplish. Eventually time runs out, the opportunity has passed or you get where you were aiming. I think of that as a mission. When it is darkest and you are in it the deepest it is very easy to get lost and start heading in the wrong direction. This happens to us all. No matter how you describe it — losing the forest from the trees, losing your path, whatever analogy you use, we’ve all been there. It is at this moment that knowing your mission or ideal outcome, writing it down and putting it somewhere visible makes all the difference. When I get lost or confused about the thing I’m working on and why, I read that mission or goal and If they line up I keep going. If they don’t line up, I stop.

This is how I check myself to make sure I am not just in motion but I’m actually moving towards my goal. Movement vs action.

There are so many easy distractions that pull us away from what we should be focused on. Most of these are on other people’s schedule. If you don’t control your time you aren’t able to control the action that comes from it.

Some practical things to think about as you walk through your day on the job:

Meetings

We all hate meetings. We do. Sometimes there are meetings that move the earth but those can be counted on one hand in an entire career. I can’t remember my last good meeting, let alone great one. Can you?

Right.

Meetings are mostly movement. Think before you request one. How else can you stop the cycle of meetings for meetings’ sake and turn it into something that creates action. My default is to not have the meeting. Can it be summarized into an email or document and distributed to the members and let them take 10 minutes to read it and get back to you with thoughts instead of using an hour to read it to them in a meeting. If the purpose is to get consensus, ask for it in another form and move on.

If you MUST have a meeting, be clear on the agenda and the goals of the meeting. Distribute information prior to the meeting so everyone comes in versed and ready to ask questions — to move things along. It’s ok to impose on attendees to do some reading before the meeting. This will also force you to make sure ONLY the right people are in the meeting so you don’t waste others time. Meetings are a crucial skill and can be effective to take action but that isn’t the truth today. Do your part. A quick rule of thumb: If there is no agenda, don’t attend/schedule. Period.

Email and messages

Nothing is worse than message overload and that is what we all suffer from. Mainly because they are misused. Most of us use email and a messaging service like Slack or Teams. Email has been around for a generation and yet we are still learning how it fits into business it seems. Slack and Teams are newer but abused nonetheless.

Here is how I use them consistently. Food for thought and you should discuss with your team how you see it working internally.

Email

I think of email as the company archive. We all get way too much because it is way too easy to send. I love email though because I can get a full thought out and send to my colleagues and they can answer it on their own time. This is powerful. When I send an email I don’t need an immediate response. I expect thought and, if needed, a reply at some point. Email for me is movement. If I’m cc’d on anything it means it is something I need to know but a response is not necessary. Those are the best emails.

Messaging Services

Slack and Teams are where the action happens. I mostly use Slack in my work and I think of it as if it was a telephone. When there is a near immediate response needed — if I have a question or a request for example — I send a Slack. Slack is a message wrapped in a form of urgency. Again, I don’t expect an immediate response however I do assume that a Slack message to be of higher priority than an email. Slack messages are action-oriented, short requests. No long drawn out paragraphs here.

A word about SMS.

I use SMS as the ultimate action request. In work terms, this is something that I need a response to immediately. Full stop. If I send a work colleague an SMS it is at the highest priority and help is needed right away. I don’t use it often so it isn’t abused but SMS is the ultimate tool of action for me.

As an organization that uses these tools there needs to be some structure on how to use them effectively in order to not overwhelm your team. It is the responsibility of the company to enable everyone by implementing the right tools for the right reasons.

If all else fails I guess you can ask yourself one important final question: Are you simply mimicking the action of my kids running around the yard for a quick sugar high?

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

How to operate in the new COVID-19 world

“And one thing change’ll bring is somethin’ new”

Steve Earle

There are times in history that are always discussed by the elders as before and after it. There was a time before electricity altered the working day. A time before the Internet made everything and everyone in the world accessible. A time before Amazon made shopping a 24/7 sport. A time before social media corrupted the electoral process. And a time before a pandemic forced us to rethink 100 years of business evolution.

This is what happens with the curse of human ingenuity. We don’t stand still and we don’t give up. It seems like there are always big thinkers and doers waiting in the wings for just this kind of change to happen and they capitalize on the shifts. We all know it doesn’t happen exactly like that. Change happens at a glacial pace until we reach a tipping point and then it accelerates.

Welcome to the tipping point

And this is where we are. There will be a before and after the pandemic and there will be stories of companies coping with the outcomes and stories of companies thriving — the difference will be how they adapt the way they operate in a world that looks dramatically different and will for the foreseeable future.

Operating in a pandemic

There are two ways for businesses to operate as the world awakens to the new reality that there is no quick fix to a pandemic. They can retrench in their old way of doing things and wait for this to pass and hope that it returns to the way it was or they can rethink their business model and product offerings and operate in the new reality.

There are obviously risks in both choices but understanding that whatever normal was prior to the pandemic is not something that we will return to. That era has passed. However, we are not yet in the after stage and that requires a different kind of thinking. In order to make it through this time, companies need to embrace this reality and build their business to accommodate it.

For those companies that remain in the bubble of before the pandemic it is time to recognize that waiting for the doors to open on the economy won’t be the savior. It is time to be entrepreneurial again and to solve the same original business problem that prompted the creation of the business but under our new circumstances. Rethink the idea. The risk in not doing so will jeopardize the business even more. Don’t try to cannibalize an offering but find something that compliments, that adds to the value for your existing customers.

The realities to be faced

The world has been through something like this before and it survived. Not just survived but thrived. The flu pandemic in 1918-1920 essentially ended a war and rolled us into the roaring 20’s. Advances in science — our understanding of immunology was momentous — was just the start. That pandemic killed as many as 100 million people in weeks at a time that pales to now in advances of technology, immunology and science. We are a different human race today compared to 100 years ago. With this comes our ability to bounce back faster given the generation that did it in 1918 was doing so while recovering from a world war and having lost 10% of the world’s population to the flu. Despite where we are today, it will never be as bad as it was in comparison.

We just need to accept a number of hard truths.

Truth #1 – Consumer confidence is shaky

This is the greatest risk to the economy right now. Consumers need to feel a sense of normalcy as a base to move towards true economic recovery. This is a psychological hurdle that is the hardest to overcome as we are still trying to balance leaving our homes and defending our communities against the virus.

Truth #2 – There are fewer employees

Massive layoffs have led the news but the macro impact on small businesses — the engine of our economy — has been devastating. We are starting to see it as provinces and states start to reopen and those businesses stay closed because they can’t earn with the imposed safety restrictions. Worse are the businesses that didn’t survive and are closing permanently.

Truth #3 – Financial aid will stop

At some point — one that we are nearing — the government will not be able to prop up the economy and people will have to get back to work. A high unemployment rate is just the beginning. Many will need to be retrained in order to re-enter the workforce because scarcity rules over the workforce right now. This obviously has an impact on any ability to spend and erodes confidence and the economic outlook.

Truth #4 – Humans are resilient and entrepreneurial

Opposable thumbs aren’t our only differentiator in this world. When this chapter is written about our history it will be about the step changes that happened as a result of human ingenuity. New business models will emerge. New companies will be formed. Existing businesses will adapt or die. New habits will have formed. New efficiencies will make us wonder what we did before. There is no doubt that sewn into the seam of this pandemic are the secrets to a great human renaissance yet to emerge.

Truth #5 – We are all watching

There has been a reckoning that has forced us all to look at how we operate as a race. We do this periodically as individual communities or cities and sometimes as countries but we don’t often do this as a planet. Nothing brings the real humanity out like a challenge to humanity. The reality of senior care, white privilege, hourly workers and the fragility of — and our reliance on — others are lessons soon not to be forgotten. Neither are those that disregarded the safety instructions, thought only of themselves and put many more people at risk. Human character has been on display in all its glory and disgust. Noted. Filed.

The global economy is a human construct — our race existed before all of this. We built it, grew it and thrived as a result of it. It also allowed us to stop it to to save ourselves from a similar fate that befell the generation that faced the 1918 flu pandemic. We are now standing at a time of great challenge where human complexity has brought us to a boiling point. When something like a pandemic strips away the veneer we are left with the things we’ve built, the things we’ve let pass and it is clear to EVERYONE there is change that must happen to evolve. We can’t ignore it now because it is front and centre today like never before. This is our turning point. This is our moment to be remembered for acting like humans.

Let’s not waste it by holding on to the way it was.

*photo credit CC0 Public Domain

Fighting to not lose

I’ve had a number of conversations over the last couple of weeks during this pandemic about fighting to win versus fighting to not lose. They were spurred by the global shutdown but they are rooted in two very different business philosophies.

It is hard to talk about pushing for growth during a global crisis without sounding soulless but businesses need to grow to survive in the best of times. These certainly aren’t those. Fighting to win or to not lose is a mindset and sets a tone for the organization. It doesn’t mean taking unnecessary risk that puts everyone in jeopardy. It means focusing efforts in the right direction to build towards something other than getting by when the economy comes back to life.

Leaders focused on not losing tend to short their business. There is a growing voice that times like these are very entrepreneurial. This leads to much more competition in the market and many will look at rethinking established business practices. Plus, they have nothing to lose. They are thinking about growing, about taking. They will be aggressive. There have been massive layoffs in every industry and organizations that have let their people go just for survival won’t win. They won’t last. If a business is in peril and the layoffs are not to retool, refocus and come out in a better position for growth, then the leaders are focused on not losing.

Leaders focused on winning take the opportunities that are in front of them and make the hard calls to retool. They rethink their business and turn a terrible situation into a call to arms. They refocus the team on a greater goal which is to take from their competition or to find an entirely unique model to grow the business.

How do you know if your company is fighting to win or fighting to not lose? You know the answer to this already. If hunkering down to you means turning off all growth levers and conserving money without doing anything but that, you are fighting to not lose. Companies don’t exist to exist. They are here to grow or let the underbrush take hold.

Times like these also show holes in your current business model and may force you to rethink your offerings. Now is the time to do this. Once a company transitions from focusing on winning to focusing on not losing it is too late to think about recovery. This kind of thinking permeates the executive team and paralyzes the company because of it. It’s hard to shake the status quo when it is entrenched.

The common attribute in today’s successful leaders is always the fight to win. Jeff Bezos starts every single letter to his shareholders by reminding them this is day 1. It has been day 1 since 1996 because, as he says, day 2 means Amazon has lost its relevance. This is fighting to win.

A little clarity please

Does this sound familiar? You decide to take a family vacation one morning so you pack up the car full of things you may need on that vacation, gather up the kids and the dog, jump in the car and then figure out where you want to go.

It seems ridiculous to the average person to plan and execute a vacation on the same day without an idea of where you are going. How do you decide what to bring? How long will you be gone for? Do you need sunscreen? Just plain ridiculous. Right?

So why do so many companies operate in this exact situation?

Having a semblance of a plan is one of the most important responsibilities a leadership team owns. How else does anyone know what is expected of them and what success looks like? Providing clarity on the vision makes everyone’s job measurable and focused. Lack of clarity (read: lack of leadership) has everyone confused about expectations, frustrated with their role and the company spinning its wheels.

Lack of clarity = Lack of Leadership.

In 2006 I was asked to take the CEO role of a company that had seemingly lost it’s way. The software company had a great track record in the emerging mobile market but had seemed, in the eyes of the board, to be stalling.

When I stepped into the role I had no idea why the company was stuck. It was stacked with the smartest people I’ve worked with from the engineering core on down. It was a vibrant place full of motion, full of love for the products and full of creativity. This would be a hard puzzle to unravel.

My first 3 months inside were just going with the flow. Trying to rationalize the way the company was viewed by the board and what the reality actually was. It was not clear to me why these two views were different. We had a great cadence of product releases and updates that I couldn’t see what the real culprit was and then three things hit me.

  1. We had too many products

We operated with a small team and this meant that we were all swamped all the time. Especially the software engineers. Yet somehow we had 8 products in market. This company did not stand still. This company knew how to get product out the door. This company executed at a delivery level that was far greater than the number of people should allow for. The problem was that we had a deliver and forget mindset. We couldn’t circle back to every product fast enough for bug fixes and updates. It was just impossible to do shiny new product development at the same time as maintain existing products on a platform that was ever-changing.

  1. We weren’t focusing on the money maker

We had 8 products in market — including 2 that launched early in my tenure as CEO. We were a machine. The problem was that most of those products were utilities of mid-to-low value when it came to earn. Launching new products pulled the focus away from our main enterprise software that was earning the bulk of our revenue and was being ignored.

  1. We were too many things to too many people

It became increasingly clear to me that we had a positioning problem at the company. Sales and marketing were all over the place because we sold 8 products to 8 different types of customers. It was impossible for them to do their jobs properly as a result. I couldn’t tell you what we did in an elevator pitch, I couldn’t define our ideal customer, I couldn’t direct the team to do anything other than what they were doing.

Something had to change. We needed a clear path and that required drastic change.

The best decisions are often the hardest to come to

There is a time where a leader must lead by making difficult choices that may be one-sided in favor of the company and this was that time for me. We needed to pair down our offerings and focus on the product that would allow us to earn and grow. The product that would allow us to have a clear understanding of who our customer was. The product that would give definition to the roles and responsibilities of the team. In other words, clarity.

We ended up pulling back to a company selling a single product. Of the seven other products that we offered, we sold one, offered two of them free (as a feeder for our main product), rolled 2 more into our main product as paid features and killed the rest. We were now a single product company.

This was not a democratic process. We weren’t able to all get to the same conclusion on this so it came down to the role of the leader to do so. Sometimes you need to hear everyone’s insight, sometimes you need to seek outside advice and sometimes you need to be a benevolent dictator.

Benevolent Dictator

The changes were immediate but not without pain. I feel that in making these important decisions I lost the faith of some of my most important team members. We were abandoning loved products that many had invested significant time and effort into. In particular I believe it cost me two crucial partnerships in the company: My CTO and my Director of Marketing. Two of the smartest and most passionate people I’ve ever worked with. They both soon left the company. No hard decisions happen without consequence.

The resulting impact of this decision was absolute clarity on our mission. The entire team got behind the one product and we all pushed together. We showered attention on that product and our customers. We all understood the new guardrails that the company operated within. We could build a real product roadmap, marketing roadmap and sales channel. There was no more confusion about our business.

Clarity.

Companies can not operate very long without it. There is nothing worse for the people who are giving everything of themselves for the success of the company only to have no purpose or direction. Lead with clarity. Create that vision and then make sure it is the creed by which the company operates. Doing so will stop the questioning, stop the bouncing from shiny object to shiny object. Your role as a leader is to carve the path and then lead the way. If you aren’t doing that, it’s time to get out of the way.

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

You need to have a reading strategy

I don’t think I finished my first book, cover to cover, until I was 13. It was as if my eyelids responded to words on a page like they were tiny sleeping pills, each one just…making…my…eyes…so……..heavy. I couldn’t read without falling asleep. So I didn’t.

In high school and university I relied on Coles notes or similar (there was no Internet back then!) to get the gist of the books that were assigned. For reports I would focus on the chapters or pieces of the books that I had read or heard talk of or were things that were in the news. Book learning was not a strength and it is something I regret not making into a routine today. All those wasted hours not spent reading has a compound effect — those books are still there and need to be read but I have fewer hours in a day available and fewer years left to get them in.

Both my parents were readers. My father wrote a book and had it published. I grew up with a sister that read books all night if she was into it. I just couldn’t do it. There was always a baseball game on or something to distract.

I remember finding my reading groove when I was in my early twenties and it was transformational. Two books stood out for me that made me realize what I had been missing trying to avoid it. The first was Clayton Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma. The second was Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crille. Both of these books were prime examples of non-fiction that transforms thinking and broadens horizons. I was hooked.

It was probably timing that allowed me to find my reading niche. I was building my first company at the time and realized that there were many before who had done the same thing. It was time to learn from them. So I did. From that point forward I would consume 30-40 books per year and, thanks to technology, have scaled that to 60-70 books per year.

I’ve tried all sorts of speed reading techniques and courses but none really worked or stuck. I don’t think that reading a book with a mission of finishing is something that works. Reading is meant to be enjoyable so blowing through a book by skimming or selective reading (i.e. the summary, intro and conclusion) seems pointless to me. So I gave up on speed reading and learned how to determine if a book was worth the effort.

It’s ok to give up on a book

There is a “go, no-go” moment at about page 50 for me that determines the fate of the book. If I can get past that I’m usually in it for the long haul. I’ve heard this advice many times over the years but sometimes you have to quit books without guilt. Quitting a book doesn’t mean you don’t go back to it later. I quit The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss but went back to read it when I was in a different mindset and loved it. Even if you give up on a book you can always retry and sometimes it works out. Then there are books that I just soak up and get excited to implement — Gary Vaynerchuk’s first book — Crush It! — was that for me. I also re-read books that have had, and continue to have, impact on me every single time I read them.

The magic of audio

My speed reading technique now is audiobooks. I can read a physical book when I have time to sit and read AND listen to an audiobook while I workout, walk the dog, do work around the house, etc. This has literally allowed me to double my reading rate and consume many more books than I ever thought I could. I listen to biographies (human and business) and history books and keep the more technical or books requiring deeper thinking and notes to my kindle. If it’s a great story I listen and if it’s a note-taker I read it. This alone has given me the gift of making up for lost years wasted without reading.

News as context

While I always have a couple of books on the go at any given time (one audio, one physical) it is also critical to understand the current world around you as well for context. I rely on the obvious choices including The Economist and the New York Times. I don’t read the physical copies of the NYTimes but do read the print Economist — again it’s about focus for those articles. Podcasts have also enabled me to consume a variety of deeper level discussions and programming that I would never have had the ability to get to but are now completely accessible. I focus on current news in “print” — the NYTimes and Economist — while my podcast playlist is full of deeper interviews with business leaders, authors and experts on various topics that interest me. I stay away from “news” shows that are typically outdated by the time I get to them.

I never would have thought that having a reading strategy would be one of the most important things I would ever develop but it is. There is a difference between going through life enriched by reading and plodding through it ignorant of the stories that have been immortalized on a page. Today I can’t imagine a life without reading. A love of books brings opportunities to see the other side of an argument, to undo the fog of war or knowledge gaps and to be more whole in your thinking. It also sets an example for your children and, in doing so, hopefully helps them gain an appreciation for a lifelong opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds to have lived.

The 20-year old version of me would laugh at this post but he was an ignorant kid who didn’t read…

The four horsemen coming from the apocalypse

Do you remember that scene from Austin Powers? That scene has been playing out in my head as we slowly emerge from the clutches of the pandemic and head into the next great unknown. It’s very clear that recovery will look like a good old recession but one the likes of which we’ve never had to deal with before. Whatever the truth is of what’s to come it won’t be a normal recovery — mostly because we’ve had enough time to adjust to living with a pandemic. Our habits have changed. What was unthinkable in January is now normal.

Along with the massive disruption to our lives are incredible opportunities to build upon for businesses. We have the chance to accelerate the rules of business, build new revenue streams and deepen relationships with customers like never before.

For 100 days we’ve had time to reflect and prepare for the coming recession. Stopping the economy dead in its tracks will have some serious consequences as we slowly open up to the new normal. This will be a world that has not conquered the virus yet. We can’t wait for that to happen so we’ll all have to make adjustments to the way we operate.

The four massive adjustments that will come out of our COVID-19 start to 2020 are:

The Delivery Economy

Without a doubt this will have the largest impact on our recovery post-pandemic. Businesses that were on the fence about delivery must now operationalize and quickly. Consumer expectations, coupled with their unwillingness to go into a store, mean if you want to grow your business you must get good at delivery.

This is not limited to simply figuring out how to deliver existing product to existing customers. Take this time to think about new lines of business. New revenue streams. Some closed restaurants have started wine pairings by subscription, some have started selling prepared meals shipped to your door. Both of these can continue even when the restaurant is fully operational as entirely new earning opportunities.

It used to be that a customer had to come to your place of business to deepen the relationship but that has changed because the habit of delivery happened. How can your business extend offerings to core customers and have it arrive on their doorstep — bringing your relationship into their homes.

Appointment economy

Most services work in the appointment economy but given there will be restrictions on the number of people allowed to congregate at any one time we’ll start needing a more sophisticated way to make appointments for our appointments. We won’t be able to arrive early for our appointments and that means fewer time slots, more delays and less revenue for those businesses.

This is a great way to right the wrongs of delays that typically happen at hair salons or dentists or doctors offices. Businesses are asking customers to wait in their cars until their appointment time and this is a great opportunity to surprise and delight those idling outside or, even better, to send a preparatory package to their customer prior to their appointment. In the case of a hair salon, they could send a sample size of shampoo and conditioner ahead of time so they can wash their own hair before arriving.

I think generally adhering to appointments will be a huge step forward for all of us — especially in family medicine and dentistry.

Video economy

Video used to be feared or make people uncomfortable but today has become a staple of our day. Zoom and Hangouts are the norm and we’ve learned to connect with friends, family and coworkers more as a result. This will not go away now that we are all set up to use the tools. Businesses large and small — from all industries — will need to look at how to incorporate video calls. It can help with triage, solve for limited gathering sizes or even in between appointment support.

There are so many service industry opportunities with video as business slowly ramps up. There are already live and canned music and cooking lessons available online but they aren’t often localized. Why not leverage some down time to do this. Teach online. Deepen the relationship and extend further into your customers life.

The Community economy

At no time has there ever been more of a community business focus. Support local has become a battle cry to help our restaurants and niche shops survive while the pandemic rages. More people will search for ways to help neighborhoods reopen by shopping and vacationing localy.

We are craving human interaction and while the convenience of online and delivery is indisputable, we all need to get out and be a part of the community. The crowds will come and the lines will grow outside of local businesses opening up several chances to make it a unique experience. Waiting in line or scheduling appointments for the gym or to buy a tent are not normal behaviours for us but they will be going forward. Local businesses need to create a differentiated experience outside and inside their stores in order to make the effort to show up worthwhile — all the while making sure they feel safe.

The best businesses will combine all 4 of these approaches. Doing this will create unforgettable interactions with their customers and deepen the relationships they’ve worked hard to start and maintain. In this brand new world of convenience every business needs to find a way to be more than just a physical incarnation of an online store. Personality, thoughtfulness and connection is at the core of the recovery. Do not take customers for granted. Put in the effort or fear the convenience of one-click purchases.

Be the first to scale

This twitter post by Hiten is as perfect a sentence that can be written and should give hope to every entrepreneur out there. You don’t need to invent the industry, you don’t need to be a pioneer and pave the way and you certainly don’t need to give up because you weren’t first.

There are two camps that people subscribe to — those that invent and those that execute. For the most part, invention is over rated. The odds of an idea being so unique and so timely as well as have a fully-baked business model would be on par with petting a real-life unicorn. In Matt Ridley‘s “How Innovation Works” he details pretty convincingly that innovation is a misnomer for consistent product evolution. This means that ideas happen but timing and execution are the more important parts of the equation and nothing happens over night nor without a lot of heavy lifting.

It is very easy to come up with an idea — although very difficult or near impossible to come up with an idea that hasn’t already been thought of. The hard part is executing properly. This is where the focus on the work happens. Restauranteurs didn’t invent the dining out experience yet there are 1000’s of restaurants in your city. They may have figured out how to get duck fat into their butter but their challenge is the same as most other similar businesses…they need to get people to notice them. They need to execute. They need to do the work. There are no industry monopolies, even niche businesses have competition. Everyone needs to focus on refining and building. Not inventing and waiting.

Shopify didn’t invent online stores. Uber didn’t invent rideshare — they also didn’t invent food delivery, nor did Doordash or Skip The Dishes. UPS, FedEx and the like didn’t invent home delivery and their competition are nationally funded postal services like the USPTO and Canada Post. Apple and Spotify and Amazon didn’t invent the digital music industry — not even Napster did that — yet each has millions of paying users. The macro point here is that invention is over rated and execution is under represented.

As you search your soul for the next great idea, the next technological solve to the world’s greatest problems, divert your attention for one second to how you can build on an existing idea that is already out there. The race is not to the idea. Innovation is for universities, labs and companies with R&D budgets far greater than yours. The race is to win in your field. The race is to bring on customers faster than the others. The race is to build a business by out executing the competition.

Trying to be first is trying to be perfect. Roll up your sleeves and embrace the work to be number 2 or 200. Doing this gives you control over your destiny right now. Waiting for the idea that will let you be first to market means one less business out there trying to compete against me and I’m good with that.

You need multiple streams

If you can sing you are a threat. If you can sing and dance you are a double threat. If you can sing, dance and act you are a triple threat. The difference between them is that you can make a living doing one or all of them. The more you can do, the more likely you can make a living when one or two of your talents are not in demand. Why settle for one scoop of ice cream when you can have three?

This is how I evaluate businesses really. Are they a threat or a triple threat. Are they a single product company or do they have the ability to earn on multiple fronts. If the industry is an emerging one, surviving with a single product offering as the only source of revenue will be impossible for most. The landscape is littered with the carcasses of single threat companies to prove this.

I worked for one of Canada’s largest media companies to help them transition from a print/web world into mobile. Moving a monolith into the web was devastating for their industry and rethinking for mobile at the time was equally jarring. The company had multiple newspapers across the country, each with their own website and each with their own mobile app. They considered each of these as products. Print + web + mobile = 3 products. By far the biggest challenge was helping them to see that they only had a single product that lived in three distribution channels. This left them open to competitive forces and closed their eyes to greater opportunities.

When Research In Motion was at its peak it owned the early smartphone industry. Everyone carried a BlackBerry and they were Canada’s most valuable company. Then almost overnight they disappeared. As they started to decline in market share they scrambled to compete by releasing other products. They released a tablet after the iPad came out but it was a lesser product in comparison. Too little too late. It would be next to impossible for a company with declining marketshare to fight the likes of Microsoft and Apple and Google at the same time — each with multiple lines of $1B+ businesses.

Those companies can afford to fight longer because of it.

Choosing a second line of business needs to complement the first.

It may have seemed natural for BlackBerry to make a tablet as their second product — Apple did it. So did Microsoft. The difference is that both of those companies owned the operating system. BlackBerry didn’t have either. BlackBerry was also a corporate-first platform. Their focus was on corporate security so their natural next step should have been commercializing their security platform. Instead they got caught up in the consumer swirl and lost it all.

Almost at the same time as the rise of BlackBerry, another company was transitioning from a single product company into what would become the world’s largest online retailer. Amazon.

Jeff Bezos’ company was a one-trick pony. It sold books online but it did not stay there for long. Almost as soon as it became known as the world’s largest book store, Bezos started expanding the company’s offerings. They did it in a sequential way that opened up other products like membership (Prime), AWS, storage, music and video. Amazon bought Audible and Goodreads and used this combined force to keep people in the Amazon domain.

Single product companies are not all destined to fail but they are left exposed when something changes in their industry. When an incumbent refocuses or a new entrant emerges it is hard to defend against momentum and a declining market share. When you are the incumbent and an upstart emerges that starts disrupting your business (think Google vs Yahoo or Excite) and there is no other source of revenue, the challenge is mighty.

Waiting until your primary business is under siege is not the time to think about a second product. Desperation makes for bad decisions and business history is littered with the carcasses of those that waited too long.

The Post-COVID downtown

And where do we go from here?
Which is a way that’s clear.

Rock on: David Essex

We are over 80 days confined to home and are mostly a mixed bag of anxiety and anticipation as our economy slowly rolls open. We’ve never been here before. We’ve never had this kind of wonder about our future before. The only thing that is for certain is that no one has a clue about what comes next.

In most cities almost 90% of all restaurant staff are no longer working. Rideshare, taxi and public transportation usage has fallen off the deep end of the deep end, there are no more summer festivals, concerts or gatherings and the likelihood of getting on a plane for a destination vacation is next to zero.

We are waiting for the magic switch that turns on the economy in whatever shape it looks like when we are ready. We’ve been warned about what this might look like coming back. The restrictions on gathering size, social distancing in restaurants and shops. We’ve heard it from every level of government. These are all assuming that there are consumers willing to part with their money on the other side of this.

Unprecedented unemployment

We are in the midst of massive layoffs and company restructurings that will generally see fewer people employed — permanently. These aren’t temporary layoffs. These are ground shifting times and business will look drastically different when they wake up whenever that is. There will be fewer employees. Period. We may not stick at 13% of our nation unemployed but it won’t be near the all time lows we were seeing prior to the pandemic.

Work from home

Many companies and even governments are calling themselves “work from home first” now. That means they are giving their staff the right to decide where to work from. The impact of this is deep. Competition for talent is now truly global and, regardless of the company headquarters, WFH means more flexibility in hiring outside of the city. Having an HQ in a city won’t mean what it used to mean.

Then there is real estate/corporate leasing side where a combination of layoffs and WFH will mean fewer square feet in leases. This will impact cleaning teams, security guards, snack/food companies that deliver to the offices as well as telecoms companies that support infrastructure and connectivity requirements for the offices.

There has also developed a great ecosystem of downtown services that really only service the core office goers during office hours. Take a huge portion of those people away and the impact will be felt by the local diners, coffee shops and dry cleaners.

Then there is transportation. With fewer people coming into the office to work, fewer people will take the bus or taxis or rideshare. Less commute time means fewer lattes from Starbucks, fewer podcasts consumed, etc.

You get the point.

These shifts were supposed to be gradual as we eased into a remote work society over the next number of years. Instead we’ve been startled into it and are now adapting — perhaps too far to one side. The pendulum will swing a little but it certainly won’t go back to where it was. We have to be prepared for another fallout due to the impact of our post COVID-19 world.

Even when we get a vaccine, the combination of fewer people working (or working for less money) + the work from home economy will give shape to an economy that is drastically different from where we were just 80+ short days ago.

How to mentor right

Do you have mentor envy? I always do when I hear about co-workers or friends talking about meeting their mentors for coffee or bouncing an idea off their mentors. Where are all these mentors and why don’t I have one anymore?

One of the greatest things to do for your own personal development is to find a mentor. This is fact. Having the guiding hand and, more importantly, ear of someone who has experienced things beyond you is one of the fastest and best ways to level up at life. I also think being a mentor is of great value to help grow and learn as a person as well. Finding a match is the hard part — it’s not just as easy as meeting someone you admire and want to learn from, there needs to be a common feeling of “for the greater good” to make it really work.

The clear focus of a mentor/mentee relationship is to pull in different thinking through different experiences. It’s always preferable as you problem solve to look at something from all angles and we tend to stick to what we know. It can be uncomfortable to extend beyond the box we live in and mentors have that ability. We are born into this world with a pair of mentors in our parents and perhaps siblings. We then gravitate to our chosen social structure based on the school you attend, your close family friends and then work or community connections. By the time we are of age where we would like to assert ourselves we’ve created our very own knowledge construct and it all depends on your upbringing. Your thinking could be expansive or contracted simply based on who your circle of influence is.

The unknown unknowns

This is where we can fall into a trap of unknowns. If you don’t venture out of your comfort zone you often miss the other side of the story. We spend so much time building our own view of things in business and life that when challenged about a different viewpoint or approach it is human nature to retreat to the stuff and places we already understand. Ignoring other options and sticking to your tight thinking is not growing. Think of this as the ignorant stage. I went through it as a 20-something year old entrepreneur trying to make the transition to a 20-something year old leader. Learning to see other peoples perspectives is a skill that a mentor smooths over. Discover the unknowns that a mentor has already figured out and you move very quickly from ignorant to accepting.

The known unknowns

Having a mentor is like taking the red pill and being exposed to options. Being contained in your own head with your own purview and decision making frameworks means you will make the same decisions each time even as you expect outcomes to be different. Being exposed to other thinking, other frameworks and other styles helps to identify the areas of improvements in your life and how you interact with those around you.

The known knowns

By working with a mentor you start to bring their approach and thinking into how your decisions get made. It may not alter the outcome but taking into consideration a different process means that you are looking at whatever you are trying to achieve from a different set of eyes. The key is to consider alternative approaches, to see things from more than one vantage point and to take the appropriate path for the challenge. A mentor is not a person that tells you what to do they simply help you light up the corners that you weren’t exploring so decisions aren’t made in the vacuum of your upbringing.

My mentor journey

I’ve tried a few avenues of mentorship. My first was more of a peer group of CEOs going through relatively the same challenges that I was going through at the time. This was a great way to understand multiple approaches and opinions of challenges — some were similar to mine, others were completely different but they all helped contribute to the way I thought things through. This peer group was a facilitated peer group and it was tremendously valuable as a way to start to find other perspectives.

I then set out to find a true mentor for 1:1 acceleration and it took some time to find the right one. There was a local CEO and community leader that I knew on the periphery who I thought would be able to help me on my journey. I was at a small breakfast roundtable and he was the speaker and his approach and demeanor was exactly what I thought I needed. He eventually did become my mentor and friend for 3 years as I learned the ropes of being a CEO of a growing software company in my twenties.

The approach he took before discussing being my mentor was elaborate. He interviewed me and did his research on me before accepting a meeting for coffee to really connect for the first time. He talked to my peers to understand who I was in order for him to feel comfortable about the relationship. It’s hard to simply pair people together and there be a bond. It takes both sides to completely commit to each other and that takes continuous effort to get right. You have to like each other, respect each other and have a completely open and honest relationship with each other and that cannot change throughout. Before we agreed to work with each other, my mentor handed me a code of conduct that laid out his rules for this partnership and that’s when I knew he was the right person for me at that time.

We worked together for 3 years and they were the toughest and most rewarding years I had experienced professionally. We worked through every imaginable challenge you could dream up and then some. HR challenges, hiring challenges, product challenges, motivational challenges, productivity challenges, investor challenges, banking challenges, economic challenges, partner challenges and even family challenges. His was a voice and guiding hand that helped when despair would have certainly taken hold and crushed me.

There was many a time when the company I was running was at a crossroads and during one of these instances his calmness and experience allowed me to make the right but hard decision to move forward. I had asked my mentor to sit with us during our yearly corporate offsite to observe and help decipher some of our challenges. After a long day of hard discussions there was little consensus among the leadership team on a direction and my frustration was at a peak.

My mentor, who had been with us the entire time taking notes but not saying anything, suggested we take a break. He then took me for a walk around the grounds of the Inn we were staying at. I’ll never forget the silence that seemed to envelop us as we walked.

He didn’t speak, I didn’t speak. We just walked.

I was frustrated at how the day had gone and he knew it. Everyone did. We just walked and eventually he prodded by asking what the core issue was at hand. He kept asking until I got to it. His was a guiding hand, helping me to see where the real problem was. He wasn’t there to solve it for me, he was helping me solve it for myself. To see it. And I did.

In a 15 minute walk at the end of a long frustrating day, my mentor helped me set the direction for my company by only being present and asking me the same question over and over — each in a different way — until the answer was right there. The team returned to our room, my demeanor was completely different and we agreed on the path forward because I was reminded of what we were trying to do.

This is the power of a mentor. Someone that understands you as a human, your eccentricities, your leadership style, your drive and your passion. A mentor is not a business arrangement, it is a partnership at the deepest of levels and that’s why it is so hard to find the right one that will make a difference.

It’s hard but, in the end, the greatest thing you can do for yourself.

Image by Jaroslav Šmahel from Pixabay 

From hustler to operator

Hustling Is a young mind’s game. That doesn’t mean that it is only for the young, it means that to do it all the time is to waste energy that could be used better elsewhere.

My first thought when someone says the word hustle is of James Spader in any role in any John Hughes movie. Slick suit, feathered hair and that air of smarmy that leaves a trail. That’s hustle to me.

My second is when I’m lagging behind and need a short burst of energy to catch up. I push a little harder, pick up my pace and then settle back to normal speed when I’m with the pack.

My third is of Charlie Hustle. Pete Rose. The all time hits leader in Major League Baseball. Rose always had this crazy look when he was in hustle mode — a cross between the Hulk and Charlie Manson.

I guess hustle means running fast, oozing slime with a crazy look to me. That’s also how I would describe operations during the early stage of a career or business. Not exactly the picture of composure and confidence but a necessary place to start for sure.

The problem is that you can’t stay in that mode. It doesn’t work for the company, you will get tired of always sprinting and it looses its heroism quickly.

When I started my first company — an Internet Service Provider — I would do house calls to help customers get set up on the Internet. I just figured this is what I would want so I did it. No big deal. But it was — to my customers. Some of them were leaders in the business community in my city and they would tell me that they chose me because of word of mouth. That I put the effort in and they respected that. #Hustle.

As the business scaled I couldn’t do that anymore but didn’t want to lose that level of service so I had to operationalize the process. I went from hustler to operator in order to scale or I would have capped my growth potential and I would have died young from sprinting 24 hours a day.

In the early days of every business there is frenetic motion that is hard to understand unless you’ve been there. The pace is relentless and the demands are high. There is a camaraderie that emerges at that time as everyone does everything in order to solve for the problems of a growing business. No clear roles, no clear direction other than get it done. Then the business must scale and those hustlers are no longer able to cope. It needs to move beyond that particular brand of hustle. To do this is where frenetic activity turns to operations. It is a repeating function: Hustle to operations to hustle to operations. Each step leads to scale. Each scale often means new people. Old hustlers move out, operators move in. New hustlers move in. Growth happens.

Good operators know when to replace the hustle and start putting repeatable processes in place. Bad operators don’t and have been sprinting in place their entire lives.

Find the wedge

Creating something out of nothing is incredibly difficult. Think about what that means. An idea occurs, usually as a cumulative result of years of subconscious data gathering and observation. Then the idea is somehow articulated and refined and built. A million things have to go right to succeed and a million decisions have to be made to keep it working. It is no coincidence that only a statistical few get this right and even fewer than the few make it work long-term.

Ideas are everywhere. We all have them but what sets an entrepreneur apart from everyone else is how they execute on those ideas. Having a big vision is great. It can inspire incredible people to do great work but it also may be too much too soon. The gap between the reality and the vision is often too large and it paralyzes everyone because the very next steps are too hard to see.

Cognitive overload.

Most initial ideas are too large to move forward. Just think to your own experiences when you are presented with something that is important but there is no clarity on where to start. It may be a great cause or idea but if there aren’t explicit next steps to move things forward, it doesn’t budge.

The problem here is that the cognitive effort is too high. It takes too much thinking to take the leap and we spend all our time trying to define something that is too hard to define. To be good at executing on ideas, those ideas need a definitive first and next step. Too much thinking means there is too much unknown and the idea needs to be refined.

The wedge.

Great ideas are great because of their simplicity. All of us have seen businesses and thought “of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” The founders have done their job in finding their wedge.

The wedge is the thing that holds a door open. That’s all. In order to bring an idea to life it needs to be able to find a way to a customer and it needs to offer enough simple value for it to be used. No one thinks of a wedge but it is a simple and powerful tool when used in the way it was intended. The wedge is an enabler that can lead to many other things.

If Jeff Bezos tried to describe what Amazon would look like today back in 1996 — the grand vision of being the greatest retailer and logistics company while also being the worlds largest digital infrastructure company — it would have been too grand. It required too much thinking. Whether this was his vision or not, his wedge was books. Rare books, then every book. Then every product. Then mining space.

Finding the wedge

It’s hard to visualize going from books to space but Bezos always intended to build a space business. Amazon became his path. You can see his ambition even in the name he chose for the company. He didn’t pick a name that had anything to do with books. He chose the river with the largest water flow in the world. His ambition was mighty but he started by finding his wedge.

The trick to finding a wedge is to start at peak vision and work down towards something that impacts the grand vision but is almost immediately actionable. A perfect example is a company called Fellow. They took on the task of making meetings better. Perhaps the secret vision of the company is to reorganize how corporations operate daily but their wedge to that goal is to make meetings and 1:1’s better for everyone. Adopting their software starts companies down the path of more effective meetings which will lead to a more efficient business with less wasted time and ineffective interactions. If everyone gets meetings right, the company is better. 2 years from now companies that buy into the Fellow process will be better as a result.

Finding a wedge is not a compromise to the bigger idea, it is the first step towards it. Most ideas can’t be actioned on because they skip over 99 of the 100 doors that need to be opened — with the most important one always being the first. If you can’t get in, you aren’t in business.

Why hardware is so hard

It takes a certain kind of crazy to get into building a company around hardware. To invent something from scratch that people find valuable is hard enough at the best of times, to do it by creating a physical manifestation of that is near impossible for many reasons. Then to find a way to distribute it, support it, update it…is an Everest style challenge without oxygen or winter clothing.

Hardware is hard.

Look around you right now and think about the hardware that you use regularly. It isn’t hard to point them out. You wear a watch (or smart watch), you carry a smart phone, you type on a computer, you talk to Alexa, you watch TV, you make coffee or cook your food. Hardware is everywhere and building it as a core to a business seems easy enough. Right?

So many things go into building the right hardware for the right reason. And that is the challenge to overcome before going down this road.

The last company I worked for had an incredible product. It was the company that I had wished I had started. It was a hardware company that focused on the gym market. The system was designed to lead and track a workout for a gym member. The product was actually multiple products including a wearable, multiple types of sensors, native mobile apps and a web component. The sensors were installed on each piece of gym equipment, the wearable was worn by the member of the gym and the apps pulled it all together in a programmed and directed workout.

This was a very complicated but beautiful challenge to solve and the company did just that but here’s why it was hard to build and, eventually what led to a product switch.

Challenge #1: Too many moving parts

The company was in 3 different businesses which often happens with hardware companies as they start. We were building hardware, software (mobile app) and content (workout routines). We had to build it this way to make it all work together. Until we had enough momentum and our partner channel was well stocked and we built our API on top of a reliable hardware stack, we needed to do it all ourselves.

Gym equipment is not easy to attach a sensor to either. There are so many different styles and types of machines — from free weights, to selectorized machines, to plate loaded — so there would never be one sensor, there always needed to be many.

The key was making all the hardware and software work together and this was done by adding beacons (yet another moving part) to each machine to help identify it as unique. We then had to build something that would allow us to register that beacon (yet another moving part) which ended up being a wearable in order to be the conduit that paired the app with the machine. Incidentally, for those asking in your head about timing, this was before the smart watches emerged. Being a little ahead of a curve is also a great risk with hardware.

Software played such an important part in what we did. We needed app developers to work on building native apps for iOS and Android. We needed data scientists in order to differentiate between a dumbbell arm curl and a tricep extension. We needed software engineers to build the operating system that connected the app to the machines and we needed it all to work without a hitch.

Counting reps

Challenge #2: Manufacturing is slow

It’s pretty easy to build a prototype with a 3D printer these days. We can jimmy up a quick test piece of hardware made of plastic and make it work. But once you are ready for full production for sale — or in our case installation on gym equipment — time is what kills you. Some of our installs were for 300+ pieces of equipment at a time, split between all those different styles mentioned before. Manufacturing took weeks, sometimes months depending on component availability. Things don’t happen quickly in hardware. The plan needs to incorporate some give in order to make sure the supply and production chains have adequate time for slippage. This will happen unless you control the chain or have the clout of Apple. Which you don’t so expect delays.

Challenge #3: Costs are higher than you think

It costs a lot to build a product. There are no easy workarounds. Committing to building a piece of hardware needs money and time. Double whatever money you think you need to build and, while you are at it, do the same for time. Even the best designed hardware on paper will run into adversity when you hit play on manufacturing. Very rarely (if ever) does the product leave the screen to be produced and distributed as it was originally designed or with the same component parts.

To test the product in the wild, companies will typically do low volume production runs — we did ours at a local manufacturer — and this increases cost significantly and is often not scalable at this cost. It’s necessary because in order to test it, you need the hardware. It could be an interative process — build, test, optimize, build, test, optimize. This has to be done until it is done right.

Challenge #4: Distribution

Our challenge with distribution was that it was a complicated installation. The decisions we made to have different sensors meant that it was not an easy thing to drop ship and have set up in a moment. We had magnetic coils that needed to be installed into selectorized machines, end caps for the barbells, RFID rings that needed to be glued onto dumbbells, bluetooth beacons that needed to be affixed in visible locations on each machine, wearable charging stations that needed to be prominent when members walked in…the list was endless. Distribution for new products is never going to be easy — especially something as far ahead of its time as this was. We knew that and it was part of the vision to make a new standard for gyms. The workout operating system.

Most companies suffer from distribution challenges. Today you can set up an online store and sell your product — creating a new challenge of rising above the noise of the crowd. It’s a different expertise needed to distribute an unknown product. It takes time, relationships, luck and a beautifully designed product that consumers or businesses understand immediately.

Challenge #5: Defects

Let’s face it, stuff breaks and when you are in the hardware business things are bound to stop working. There will be a small percentage of product that simply fails out of the box or something in the environment makes it stop working. Failure is inevitable.

One of our early designs for counting the amount of weight someone was lifting was also something that was a magnet for dust. Eventually enough dust gathered on the sensor and it stopped doing what it was supposed to do. Corrosion, humidity, the pounding of heavy weights all lead to potential defects. It could be something as simple as a battery slipping from its contact. We even had a percentage of our components that reached us already defective.

Challenge #6: Capital

Hardware is not software. When it comes to funding it always needs more. More time, more resources, more research and way more money than originally thought. That may seem simplistic and obvious but undercapitalizing a hardware company will seal its doom. Our company raised a seed round on the large size but it really needed 10X that amount to actually build what it set out to build and stay alive long enough to see it through.

When raising investment for a hardware business, raising too little or selling too big a vision is a non-starter. Sell the vision but insist on the right raise or the gap will be too wide.

Challenge #7: Knowing when to pivot

Sometimes hardware startups bite off more than they can chew and are facing one or many challenges on this list. It might be time to pivot the product in order to simplify and to live another day. This is a hard compromise to make but the alternative may be giving up altogether.

The key to a pivot in hardware is time. It can’t happen near the end of life for the business. There needs to be enough money in the bank that gives enough time to design, build, test and deploy the new product.

Our company had to pivot for all these reasons but we did it with enough runway to test the idea on customers, validate requirements and then move into production and deployment without raising another round. The next product was closer to commercialization and would start earning immediately upon launch. It wasn’t the one we had set out to create but it was on a path towards that vision.

Hardware is not for the feint of heart. Version 1 of any new technology will take longer and cost more than initially thought. The vision of the product may need to be recast many times during the early days in order to get it out the door. Then, slowly, it is refined release by release. Sometimes component parts get better, sometimes a different approach is discovered. Regardless, getting that first version out the door is crucial. That’s where the real work actually begins.

Love the work.

I love working. I love that feeling when you know you are contributing to building something greater than just you. Call it work ethic or elbow grease or being reliable — call it whatever you want — but doing the work is what makes me happy.

This wasn’t always the case. I was a terrible student because I didn’t want to do the work. I scraped by with marginal marks the entire time I was in school. I remember the exact moment where I realized effort did not equate to success at school. It was grade 5 math and my teacher said she was generous and gave me a 50 for the term. It was crushing and I explained that I had really made an effort that term and I had. She said that my effort is why she gave be a passing grade but it didn’t necessarily translate into good marks.

I really learned to work when I started my first company. There was no hiding from it then. The need to eat and live under a roof made for enough motivation to put the work in. As most entrepreneurs know, having to run a business and be the business takes an incredible amount of focus and dedication. As Springsteen says, “he don’t work and he don’t get paid.” That forces you to learn to work.

I levelled up again at my work game when I had twin boys. There is no escaping the amount of effort it takes to raise a child but two at the same time means you have to suck it up and get to work. Whatever I thought work was before kids, I was wrong and I needed to get more done in the same time. This is where you really have to love the work or it will beat you down. You need to balance the job of the job, the responsibility of the parent and the commitment to your spouse. An imbalance in any of those and the whole system is off.

There is a lot of wasted space in work. It is this wasted space that makes people hate the work. It can happen when you aren’t focused on doing the right things because of a lack of direction or instruction. It will happen if you don’t like what you are doing. It does happen if you don’t understand the game you are playing and how to win at it. All of these things zap your energy and work becomes work.

As an entrepreneur you can always find things that need to be done but you’ve got to love the grind or you will get tired quickly. As I moved up in my work life into more senior roles I realized that I missed the work. I love being a leader but I love being a leader that contributes by rolling up my sleeves and getting involved. It’s an example I want to set for my kids that despite a title and the prestige that comes with it, you have to work hard to make a meaningful contribution.

You have to love to work or the work eats you up.

Check your ego

We all have an ego. It varies in size, weight and visibility, but we all have one. It is human nature to want to mean something in the world or to be admired for something that we’ve accomplished. It starts as a child looking for approval from a parent or a peer. It continues in life to be something that propels you if kept in check or destroys you if you let it lead.

To be an entrepreneur you must have an ego. Politicians, writers, actors, musicians, tv hosts, reality show contestants, the mailman, the grocery clerk…they all have one as well. Ego is a central requirement to have enough confidence, enough hubris to aim for something big and take it. But there is a process, a way to keep your ego at bay so it doesn’t overflow before it is deserved.

Ego is a life force that can affect a career or relationship path. If you exert too much unearned ego at the start of your career you will rub people the wrong way and be labelled. If you don’t push a little out in front at that same time, you will most likely be ignored. What is the ego balance?

I like to visualize ego as the path of earth reentry that spacecraft have to take. Too steep (too much ego) and the craft will burn up. Too narrow (not enough ego) and it will bounce off into space. The perfect balance between speed and the angle of descent leads to success.

As an entrepreneur, there are 4 phases of ego.

Contained.

Early in a career the ego needs to be contained. Too much and it is off-putting. Too little and there is nothing memorable. You need to understand when to assert and when to leave it alone. If you look back at today’s most successful artists to before they were stars they will often seem as though they are completely different people. That artist is driven by ego and a craft but full of insecurities as they read for a part, sing to empty rooms or campaign from the heart. Business people are no different. Humble confidence.

Controlled.

A little bit of success in any field bolsters the confidence and brings with it a little ego that escapes into the world. You start to feel as though people should recognize you or listen to you because of the success. The release of ego needs to be earned and timed. Believing your own press releases too much ego into the world. Making up your own press means you are overflowing with too much ego and have no control over it. It must be controlled. Just listen to interviews with young athletes or artists. Most of their comments are about the team or cast and contributing to the win or the play or the ensemble and praising their team, band or director. They have been trained to keep the ego in check. Sports teams train players to keep their ego controlled for the health of the team. We all know players that have overstepped in this arena and let their ego spill all over the clubhouse. Those guys are still not in the hall of fame because their ego oozed out and was rubbed in everyone’s faces.

Released.

At the core, ego is a belief in the self. If trained properly, it can be a massive secret weapon. It can help people persevere and overcome incredible odds. This is what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and business leader. Every entrepreneur or small business owner has a deep belief in the fact that what they are building is something that other people will value. Despite the many people who will wonder why or feel as though there is no way that the idea will succeed, the entrepreneur pushes forward. What gives them the right to do this? To venture into the unknown and try to build something that has never been built before? To shun the traditions of the workforce in order to follow a dream? Ego. This is where an ego needs to be given some leeway, to be released into the world. Ego is stamina. Ego is a self-belief in the abilities of the entrepreneur. Without a little extra ego at this formative time, there is no entrepreneur and there is no business. You need to believe in your ability to get it done and to stick it out when others are saying you are crazy. That is all ego.

Corralled.

Here’s the tricky part. Ego is a fuel for entrepreneurs but at some point it becomes an accelerant that burns everything down if used too much or for the wrong reasons. This is where it goes so poorly for so many. It usually starts with success coming too early in the process or too quickly and the belief is that it is warranted and the attention becomes expected. There are so many examples here that cover every industry. When it happens, the ego subsumes the entrepreneur and it must be able to be corralled or it will need to be fed.

Having an ego is not at issue. It is the life-force of the entrepreneur. Used properly it will propel you forward. The opposite is also true. To be filled with ego yet humble is the mix. Those that practice this will have the fuel that motivates them but also the wherewithal to direct it in the right way to use it as a tool.

There are some simple, hard-earned rules about ego that I’ve learned through the years of having one and doing my best to control it.

  1. It may be your idea but it has to be everyone’s quest so never take the credit
  2. Show your value by doing the work — it should speak for itself
  3. Defer to the experts. Don’t say anything if you don’t know what you are talking about
  4. Be open to feedback and criticism. Don’t take any of it personally, it’s an opportunity to improve
  5. There is no room for ego inside the family unit. You have to change the diaper and take out the garbage regardless of your net worth…

It’s easy to listen to the praise and let it define you but that path takes too much energy to follow. Just don’t be the asshole in the room and you should be fine.

*photo credit: NASA / Public domain. Soyuz capsule returning to earth

For the love of it

When I was a kid I only loved Elvis Presley and baseball. These were both incredibly important and influential in their own way but weren’t things that I could realistically do anything with. But go ahead and ask me who played centre field for the Montreal Expos in 1983.

Then somewhere in my 18th year I decided to try my hand at the guitar. My parents had “forced” me to take music lessons most of my life. It was first the recorder with Mrs. Hopkins and then piano with Mrs. White and then I settled on the clarinet in grade school and high school. Even played in the school band. I tried singing in choir once as well. This led to our music teacher, who was conducting, to ask me to mouth the words while the others sang. It wasn’t a glorious moment for me.

Then I found the guitar.

It had always been there in the music that I migrated to. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Mellencamp and Petty. It just wasn’t something that I thought I could do. I was lazy and this looked like a lot of effort really. Then my best friend snuck me into a bar to watch a local band of legends – Cooper, Emmerson and King – and I watched in awe as they transformed from normal humans into artists in front of my eyes. Seeing those guys play made me want to play. I saw them a dozen more times and just watched their hands move along the fret boards. It really was magic.

So I bought a guitar and for 32 years it has been with me, beating me up every time I play.

The guitar I bought was out of my price range and made me feel uncomfortable but the price alone made me commit to getting value from it. I started playing and I sucked. Bad. But I kept at it and, for years and years and years, I sucked bad. There were moments when I would be walking down the street and hear an incredible performer playing on a corner and think to myself “if this person is that good and playing for coins, why am I doing this?”

There were some highlights during the early days. Like the time I was playing on the front steps of my house and my neighbour walked up and waited patiently until I was done whatever song I was butchering. I remember thinking that I had an audience. A REAL AUDIENCE listening to me play. Was this the start of something? Could I be on my way?!? She placed a $1 coin at my feet and said “for the love of god, please stop.” This, and many other similar interactions made me realize that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living playing this thing.

I didn’t get it.

My mother played the piano and I remember she would sometimes sit down at ours at home and play. She played for joy. That was it. But I didn’t understand that you can learn and read and do things for pure joy until my forties! I spent my time comparing my outcomes to others and was never ever satisfied. It made me give up playing for almost 2 years. My guitar sat in the corner of my basement and mocked me.

Then I had kids and in a world of screens, music seemed to me to be an example I had to set. I picked up that guitar but this time for joy. When they were babies I would just play for them. Sing them to sleep. Teach them words to sing with me. I was still terrible but I would work to improve, slowly. They didn’t judge — mostly because they couldn’t talk.

Today I play every day for at least an hour. I fit it in because it brings incredible rapturous joy to me. Maybe not so much for my family. Both my kids are interested in playing instruments — one the trumpet, ukulele and guitar, the other the piano. They tolerate my singing and playing and I encourage theirs without forcing them. They have to find their joy for it to take.

My secret reason for playing is to give them memories of their old man. There are things they will remember about me long from now — some good and some not so good — but I want them to recall their dad sitting at the dining room table struggling through and then nailing a song. There are so many lessons in that for life and it all starts with taking the initiative by playing the first note and sticking with it for the right reasons.

Don’t fail fast, learn fast

Failure used to be a thing to avoid. The last thing you’d ever want to do is fail — especially at business. This fear of failure was motivation. Failure was hard to admit and harder to recover from mostly because of the way we interpret the perception of others on our failure. It is an emotion and intellectual mind game.

But that changed.

Now failure is looked at as a badge of honour. A thing that happens to everyone. A stage in an entrepreneur’s life that, if not present, means something worse than failure itself. We don’t trust people that don’t have at least a small vice (mine is coffee and Sour Kids candy) and the same can be said for those that haven’t failed at a business.

When I set out to build by first company my fear at the time wasn’t failure, it was telling people what I was doing. It was at a time when many looked at entrepreneurship as a choice of last resort. Can’t find a job? Be an entrepreneur. My fear was the reaction that I would receive from my friends and family. The rolling of the eyes. The thousand reasons why it wouldn’t work. The negativity kept me silently plugging away, telling few people, just so I wouldn’t hear them talk about failure. I wouldn’t let them get it in my head that my efforts were in vain. The strength of an entrepreneur is a blind belief in their core that the idea they have set upon needs to be built and they are the only one to do it. There is a determination that this brings to succeed at all costs.

We’ve all heard the heroic stories of entrepreneurs using every means necessary to make their dreams a reality. Elon Musk had enough money to launch 3 rockets when he built SpaceX to commercialize space. Each of those rockets exploded but here he stands, about to send people to Mars. These are the legends that we hold dear as we build our businesses.

There are many stories like Musk’s being told in boardrooms and schools everywhere. The story behind the story is not. Musk’s rockets failed but each made it closer to its goal. The first blew up on the launch pad. The second rocket almost made it to orbit. The third made it but collided with itself during a maneuver in orbit. Lessons were learned. Progress was made. He would do what was thought to be impossible on the very next launch and pave the way for his vision. You can’t fail fast in business. You need to learn fast from your failures.

Unfortunately the acceptance of failure has swung too far to the norm and this limits the learning that is needed in order to arm the revolutionaries. It’s dangerous to think about failure as a target. If that is your target what you are embarking on isn’t a business.

The misinterpretation of failing fast is what’s alarming. It does not mean you try out a business and hope it works. There are no lessons in failure if you fail too fast and too soon. That’s just giving up. We have encouraged this generation of entrepreneurs to fail fast and I think this has been interpreted as give up fast and move on.

Starting a business is not an easy task. There is very little joy in the early days. It is isolating and stressful no matter how many times you do it. You spend most of your time building something others can’t see. You are surrounded by your own self doubt and this leads to many internal conversations about giving up. Here’s where lessons are learned and to give up too soon is to deprive yourself of those lessons.

So why are we now conditioned to fail fast?

Somewhere in the early Internet surge there was a period of hyper entrepreneurialism that looked like innovation. Companies in the last quarter of the 20th century had built infrastructure and protocols that enabled the commercialization of the Internet. Because of true innovation and invention we had readily available computer hardware on all our desks, network connections and the emergence of higher speed Internet to the home and office. It was this combination that moved many to build the layers on top of it all to make commerce and connection happen over the Internet. The innovators had laid the pipe, the builders started building and the Internet boom was born.

What that time did for us was open our imagination. New business models were obvious but just out of reach. The Internet became dial tone. Entrepreneurship went from having to build the technology to just manipulating it. Ideas were everywhere but execution became the differentiator.

It’s easy to look back at that time and be critical of some of the ideas that emerged but it was a new time and entrepreneurs were testing — as they always do. The greatest fallacy of that time was that anyone with a screen and an internet connection could build a business.

This simply wasn’t the case.

The companies that truly innovated, who stuck it out and were forced to rethink their models, survived. The rest died quickly like a meteor slamming into Mars. One moment everything was ok, the next they were charred remains. Those entrepreneurs were testing a new moment and there is always carnage when the economy shifts from an old way to a new way. It is hard to build a 100 year company when there are multiple seismic upheavals during that time. The lesson is that you adjust or you die.

Adjust or die.

So why didn’t those companies adjust? Because they couldn’t. They weren’t real businesses. They had been formed on a flawed principle of getting eyeballs instead of getting paying customers. When the funding collapsed they were already on a trajectory that couldn’t be altered in time to bring them to safety. Many of the biggest failures at that time had eaten hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. The world had digested billions and the visible return on investment was a sock puppet and Amazon. But if we look a little closer, there were lessons learned by those entrepreneurs that set them up for the next boom and they would be smarter.

The lessons of the dotcom era ended up being the currency. And to avoid having the same thing happen again, it became harder and harder to find investment and when you did, they were smaller and smaller amounts. The investments were based on real milestones and real disruption because investors were interested in building real sustainable businesses. In 1999 disrupting pet stores by moving them online was a business model. By 2010 enabling every shop to get online and sell their products globally was starting to be the norm. By 2020 if a store doesn’t have a window on the Internet we question its existence. In 20 years we have gone from disrupting pet stores (failure) to disrupting retail.

Learn fast

I don’t know any other part of life that subscribes to the “fail fast” mantra. Do you try to fail fast at marriage? Family? Do you fail fast in construction or medicine? There are failures in each but those that don’t learn fast from the failures are meant to repeat them. Why doesn’t this translate to business?

Maybe our visions became smaller. The lift to get ideas off the ground doesn’t require as much effort today. You don’t need to worry about computing power, connectivity or even understanding a programming language. You can build something quickly to test, run customer acquisition initiatives for cheap and build a business in a day. This lack of ownership of the platform often means there isn’t a great commitment. There may be an initial surge of energy towards the idea but when that is gone, so is the idea.

To build a great business it must solve a great problem. Most of the time that problem is not as obvious as we think. Entrepreneurs may start down a road they think is right but realize they were way off the mark and adjust. Companies that subscribe to the fail fast ethos take this time to give up and move to the next business idea. If you can give up on the idea, if you can legitimately fail fast you have chosen the wrong idea to begin with.

The wrong path.

Apollo 13

To succeed in failing fast means that you didn’t do your homework. It means the business never had a chance because it wasn’t a real business to begin with. There is no room for failure if the prep is done and mission is clear. It’s ridiculous to think that NASA would have left the astronauts of Apollo 13 floating in space. The mission was clear, the path was laid out but something went wrong. They didn’t give up and fail quickly, they dug in and solved the problem. During this whole process there were contingency plans — someone had thought of the LEM as a safety boat years before it was necessary to use it. They planned for success, learned from failure and brought the astronauts home safely.

Failure is not something to fear. It’s bound to happen to all of us. It has a high probability of happening to most businesses. It is for this reason that now more than ever, entrepreneurs need to plan for it ahead of time by learning quickly on how to overcome those challenges. Perseverance is the single most important trait for an entrepreneur once an idea has been fully vetted.

Don’t start something with the focus on failing fast. Learn fast and succeed.

The message is the medium – How to use communications tools and avoid burnout

I used to think I had a screen problem and then everyone started working from home. Now I KNOW I have a screen problem.

I sit at my dining room table all day and stare into my computer. There are some days where I have 6 hours of video calls with colleagues located across the country and multiple timezones. I can see it in their faces as they can see it in mine, the combination of social isolation and no natural barrier between work and home has led to burnout. I get this feeling mostly because we don’t use the communications tools the way we should.

The greatest abuse comes from meetings. Check that, meetings without agendas. If you have no agenda for a meeting, the meeting is not necessary or it is a social call. No agenda reads to me that attendance is not required. Second to a non-agenda meeting is one that has an agenda but the time is spent just reading the update doc that everyone already contributed to (and read?). Don’t be a non-agenda-only-read-the-doc meeting. Also, don’t just share your screen and read the doc either. Same infraction.

I heard a rumour floating around that in a legendary move by Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke, he deleted every single meeting from the entire company calendar system because he noticed the ridiculous number of internal meetings happening. It’s time we all did that or we’ll never break the cycle of being a meeting-first company.

The second highest abuse comes from using the communications tools improperly. It has always been strange to me that when we onboard new employees we don’t teach anyone how to use the tools properly. Everyone can send an email or a text message but do you know what your company policy is for why you’d use one over the other and when to use which tool? Confused? Yeah, that’s the problem.

What’s the hierarchy of your system? When should you send an email, book a calendar meeting or send a Slack message. When you receive any of these messages, what should you accept, how quickly are you expected to respond — or should you even respond? If you don’t know, your team doesn’t either and I’ll bet no one in your company has a clue.

When you send a message to someone, be aware of the context your are sending it in. There is an escalating case of urgency depending on the medium you send it through. We abuse this power by mis-sending mis-classified messages and this has a cumulative impact on the recipients that will eventually lead to overwhelm for them.

It makes no sense to bring on employees without equipping them with the ability to navigate the communications wormhole in any size company. Setting these clear expectations will avoid the kind of burnout we are facing today.

Be a Tobi when it comes to questioning the value of every single meeting. Be a good digital citizen when you are communicating with your team. Define the message and the medium by which it should sent will be obvious.

The video call culture

I prefer video calls. There is something to be said about seeing the other person respond to the conversation in real time. Body language is reactive and those nuances are irreplaceable if you plan on having meaningful conversations that move your business.

The thing that makes video so powerful is attention. I had a podcast that I started about 11 years ago and the only requirement was that it was a video call. Back then it was all done over Skype — I was a little early to the video game. I would record the video calls and post the episodes online and then strip out the audio and post those as true podcasts. Why go through this effort? I wanted the undivided attention of the person I was interviewing. It is far too easy to let your mind wander and or get distracted just doing voice. Video meant that if someone was mailing it in or responding to emails, I could see it and bring them back into the interview. The funny thing is that I rarely had that happen.

Video is a powerful attention setter. People are aware of their surroundings, their appearance and they snap to attention. You can’t hide on video and this is the power that it has in meetings as well.

We are in an awkward stage of video calls given that it is new to mostly everyone. There is a learning curve but that is quickly flattening. If you remember the early cell phone days when everyone’s first words (mostly in disbelief) were “can you hear me?” — that’s where we are with video calls. We are very quickly moving to where this will be the norm at every company and between every human. It is a step move from traditional voice calls and one that we should not let go of.

Most of the companies that I’ve been involved with hold video calls instead of conference calls. It is a powerful connective strategy for dispersed employees. There are people that I deal with daily and have known for over a year that I’ve never met in real life. Just over video. This is the power of the platform.

We are seeing behavioural changes in businesses that are adopting video calls today that will alter processes completely going forward. Job interviews have already adopted it. Doctor consultations, hairstylists, veterinarians, education, music lessons — the list is endless for business opportunities to build around video.

Video calls will also make us more productive in the long run. We won’t attend meetings that we can’t contribute to and those will be obvious. We may be called into meetings for only a few minutes in order to offer a thought or two and then released. And for those that have already had meetings on video, you know that there is a faster resolution to the meetings when everything has been said. There seems to be a lot less chatter and that awkward silence happens sooner than on the telephone.

No more wasted hours on calls that aren’t impactful. The shift to video calls allows you to rethink how your business functions internally and with customers. Embrace it and you won’t ever go back to the old fashioned way our parents communicated.

Change in real time

We are all having a hard time as we try to rationalize the impact that a global pandemic has had on the way we live. It’s horrific and fascinating. Horrific because of the massive economic and social damage it has inflicted so quickly. Fascinating because it is forcing a decade of change inside of months.

For the first time ever change is in real time.

We’ve typically looked at change in retrospect. Stand here today and cast your memory back to the year you were born or the year you graduated from University. Look at your baby pictures or your wedding photos or your children’s first birthday. All you see is progress from that day forward. It may seem like a massive amount of advancement but, given what we are witnessing today, it really wasn’t that fast was it?

We ARE that boiling frog or lobster or whatever. Change has been happening around us, routines are gradually modified and we hardly notice. From 3 local television channels, to 50, to 1000 to unlimited content from around the world and we are still channel surfing. Change. Is. Boring. From no computer, to a tower on a desk, to one on your lap to one that fits in a pocket, to one that fits on a wrist. Change. Is. Boring.

Change. IS. Boring…until now.

If you spend a moment and think about how all this “change” has impacted your daily routines you’ll notice something alarming: It hasn’t. Until now. The job you may be doing may have been invented in the last 20-30 years but jobs do evolve to accommodate technological and societal advancements. For example, when the computer age swarmed us, developers emerged as a profession. Then the world realized that in order for the rest of us to use the technology, there was a desperate need for designers that could make it usable. And so on.

Professions change but the act of work hasn’t. We still go to an office space like our parents did and their parents before. We show up at a specific time and leave at the end of the day. We still get in our favourite mode of transportation and commute there and back every single day — except the weekends if you are lucky. Work has NOT changed despite itself until now.

It’s like the human race has rules about how we work and, despite the promise of innovation, we will stick by that regardless. The box has been drawn around us and we must fit in that or it isn’t normal.

Until now.

We’ve all been forced to REALLY change our routines. This means no more gradual boil. We’ve been dropped into a direct boil and we have had to adjust. And we did. It may have taken a couple of weeks to get our bearings aligned but we did it. We CAN change and this is an incredible human trait so it is time to rethink things that should have been already.

Managing People

It’s time to rethink how we manage people for starters. There is no room left anywhere for micromanaging leaders that lord over their employees. Those days are gone and they should be as well. Exit. No one liked working for that type and this world is suffocating them. An acceptable loss.

Location is not an asset

Location is another concept that needs to change. Not just offices but physical locations of any kind. If what you offer is a commodity this reality would have hit you hard over the last 2 months. Retail, movie theatres, restaurants, transportation services have all been closed and many won’t reopen. Those that do will be unique in their offerings that distinguish themselves from the others. It is time to rethink your business to make sure you survive. If your value isn’t clear, your business path isn’t either.

Educate more

All of our kids are now out of school. Universities and colleges are now talking about not opening in the fall and pushing the learning online. They have been forced to remake their business model quickly. That model may open up the opportunity for cheaper education costs and therefore many more students. What will the global impact be of more university educated students? Incalculable but significant.

Travel less

If you travel a lot for work or pleasure you know the pain of the airport and flight experience is what you have to endure to get where you are going. Long lines, dirty germ-filled planes, crappy food, no leg room, the middle seat…need I say more. Terrible, all of it and every single person accepts this — including the airlines. The ONLY way this process changes is when something catastrophic happens and the process of plane travel gets worse and worse. There is NEVER a change for the better when you have to use an airport. Add a pandemic and deep cleaning requirements to the already crazy lines and screening processes and a 1 hour flight now becomes a full day. No thank you. Business as usual needs to change. Remove the middle seat, remove the cloth that covers the seats, do whatever is necessary to not make the experience worse. One way is to bring back supersonic jets

The appointment economy

Doctors and dentists and hairstylists know this already but appointments work at controlling traffic flow and reduce anxiety around large groups of people. It also enhances the experience and gets commitment to follow through. Have you ever gone to get your passport renewed and had to wait in that line all day? That is not progress. We have to move to an appointment-based economy. For 2 months we’ve been conditioned to finding a grocery delivery slot and waiting, now it is time for my gym to do the same. No one will want to work out with 100’s of other sweaty people that don’t clean their equipment after use. Appointments will rule and, the best part is that we’ll learn the importance of being on time.

Strengthen Communities

Most humans are social beings and this is what we are desperately missing. Family, friends, gatherings, baseball. It’s true that we NEED these to feel normal. We NEED these to feel connected to our community. In the true spirit of the human we’ve actually taken this time to connect more with those that we’ve let slip away. We’ve taken the time to reach out, talk to and rekindle friendships that were lost for years. We crave connectivity and this time has allowed us to breath new life into old friendships.

This pandemic has forced our eyes open. Open eyes means we’ve seen the good and the bad and where the gaps are that need to be connected. We can’t ignore them now, we have to change the way we do things significantly in order to move forward. There is no more room for increments. Slow change along the same path won’t save our economy or protect us from whatever is to come. The only thing that is for sure is that if we don’t rethink the way we do things, this will happen again and the consequences of that will be even more devastating.

Was this a glitch in the Matrix?

Sometimes I honestly think we are living in a massive life simulation. That our ancestors actually managed to upload humanity into a computer and we are all figments of this experiment. Humanity’s evolution is playing out in a box somewhere — the culmination of all our technical achievements. The great humanity video game.

When the world gets into a rhythm, when we all get too comfortable with our plans and our processes our dungeon master injects a little virus to keep us all grounded. This virus could come as a drought, a dictator, discovering oil, aging, the Kardashians or COVID-19. Just small experiments to see how accurate the simulated humans are represented inside the sim. How do we react? How does the system bend.

When we are stuck on a problem or aren’t evolving our thinking fast enough, our impatient AI overlord invents a mind like no other to move us forward. Think of world outliers like Genghis Khan, Leonardo DaVinci, Elvis Presley, Rosa Parks and Elon Musk. These humans aren’t like the others. They don’t think like us, they don’t act like us, they were added to our timeline just to simply move us forward.

Then there are the future Darwin Award winners. They are injected into the system to warn us of our human limits. They’ll argue that the world in lockdown is a conspiracy and then drink lysol. How dumb does this AI think we are? Those people can’t exist in real life. We MUST be in a sim.

The experiments that are happening today are testing us in ways that we’ve only theorized.

Our environment has been weeping for two generations with the earth asking us to slow down, to consider our impact on the only inhabitable planet many generations will know. Now we get a chance to see what happens when we take most cars and planes out of circulation.

The evolution of business means we’ve been stuck inside of offices with more and more people jammed in next to us. Then, one day, all of our offices were closed. We’ve been talking about paperless and office-less work for years and here we are. No more talking about it, we have to adjust.

The family unit has taken a beating over the last 100 years. The way we are living in a COVID-19 world is how families lived before offices were invented. The family unit has broken down because of the way we operate our daily routine. How many of us are deeply appreciative that we get to spend this time reacquainting ourselves with our partners and kids?

The age of being a celebrity as a career is over. No longer can we accept that people famous for being famous is a thing. Our eyes have been opened to the fact that actors are not great at real life — nor does their life resemble any of ours.

Perhaps the greatest experiment is how humanity’s resilience has been tested by this sim over the last 100 days. It is in the way we show compassion to our neighbours and essential workers that makes me realize that we can’t blame a computer for where we are as a race. The human spirit is a connection among us all, not a trait that can be programmed and we’ve seen it shine in the most unlikely time.

We are one people on one planet that had better get better at being human.

The Canadian Innovation New Deal

This generation of Canadian innovation certainly does stand on the shoulders of giants. There is an invention legacy in Canada that, given our population, outperforms most other countries. Our inventions have had transitional impact at a global scale — back when we took it seriously as a nation. It is time to build a culture of innovation and become the shoulders that other nations stand on again.

We are months into the pandemic and already we have reshaped our social structure to support those most affected by the shutdown of business across the country. Now there is a growing sense of unease as we wait for the brakes to ease on the safety restrictions and we can all go back to work. We don’t know what that will look like but we do know that, regardless of where you work, it will look different. We will be forced to rethink much of how we operate going forward as the old way is no longer an option.

With unemployment at the highest point in modern history, there will need to be a stimulus that gets people back to working. We will inevitably start massive infrastructure initiatives across the country — this is the time to invest in the nation and do those things that have been saved for a rainy day. I believe that Canada should also be deliberate in delivering a new innovation deal that spurs invention and rebuilds our brand as the little nation that could — and does — create world-changing technology.

Canada needs to regain our swagger by rebuilding our brand as a world leader in innovation and the pandemic has given us the excuse we’ve been waiting for.

There has been a lot of chatter around a “New Deal” for Canada to help stimulate the stagnant economy and pull us out of the inevitable recession that will follow.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was aimed to put Americans back to work and to build confidence in the economy as the world recovered from the Great Depression. At that time it meant funding the construction of buildings, bridges, highways and parks. There was funding for artists, a focus on workers rights and even ended prohibition. One of the most ambitious efforts was to pass the Tennessee Valley Act to build dams along the Tennessee River to control flooding and generate hydroelectric power for the region. Big thinking like this that changed the face of the nation.

Tennessee River

Today we are in a different situation. Sure, there is a massive need for infrastructure maintenance but that is an obvious low hanging fruit. However, most of Canada operates in the bitsphere — a place where digital connectivity and electricity drives our daily lives. Having an IP address and a screen has become our gateway to work and play and that is not going to change. In fact, this has become table stakes for where we go from here.

The real question is where do we go? The innovations that we are using to stay connected today are older than most of our parents. The cycle of pure innovation has slowed to a crawl and there’s nothing like a pandemic to force our hand.

Pure Innovation?

There is an alarming lack of true innovation being commercialized effectively today. This has become our problem. Companies, for the most part, aren’t innovating at all anymore. The technology that runs our lives has been around since the 1960’s. The ideas are even older. We have been on a slow crawl from networked computers, to desktop computers, and then back to networked computers (but we call it “the cloud” today) since the 1940’s. The only difference is that as Moore’s Law progresses, things get smaller and go from the size of warehouses, to fitting on desks to pockets to wrists. From stamps to email to SMS. From ads in newspapers to ads on TV to ads online. From census to Google Analytics.

What we need is a kick in the innovation ass and the pandemic is a perfect excuse.

Canada needs a New Deal for Innovation.

Here is our chance to build our collective brand as an innovative country. We’ve been known historically as a nice populace, a welcoming nation to those that need shelter and a new start. We were once known as the world’s peacekeepers but that hasn’t been true for over 20 years. Our identity in the world has become whitewashed and with a bold innovation strategy and bold bets on investment we can start to build our brand as an upstart nation that commercializes (and exports) world class technology.

Setting this tone requires investment. Not just “traditional” new deal investments of pavement and buildings and rails and tunnels but big bets on where technology is going. Canada is a nation that needs an identity and invention is where we must go to do so.

We (the collective “we”) invented two-way paging and we were pioneers in fibre optics that led the way to our connected world. Today we look up to companies like Facebook and Google who are, in essence, selling ads. The same thing the world has been doing for hundreds of years, they just do it better by harvesting our data and selling it to the highest bidder. Even the platform that enables them to operate, the Internet, is 45 years old. There is no innovation here, that’s just evolution. The majority of revenue earned from newspapers during their day was from ads. The same is true of Google and Facebook today. That is not innovation. We should not idealize these companies.

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

That famous quote attributed to Henry Ford seems ridiculous today but it says so much about seeing true change happening (a car) as opposed to incremental changes (a more comfortable saddle).

Peter Thiel summed up the rate of declining technological innovation today when he aptly said “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Now is the time to lay the foundation to shift the way that the world and Canadians think of Canada. Something like this usually takes a generation to do but the way Canada reacted to the Pandemic shows us what can be done if we are motivated to make it happen.

Here’s what it will take.

A national (REAL) innovation mandate

Innovation can’t just be a word that describes what we’ve done prior. Innovation is not a retrospective. It is an active flex and needs to be defined. Canadian leaders need to articulate our national innovation mandate and the Canadian Government needs to reduce the friction to funding this future. We also need to rethink how we brand Canada. Natural resources and quality of life aside, our confidence will come from others telling our story back to us and right now we all live in igloos and hunt deer in our backyards. We need to change this perception. What do we want other countries to say about us?

A national foundation of entrepreneurship

To innovate, we need innovative thinking. That can come from anywhere but needs to flourish. Risks need to be taken in order for breakthroughs to happen. It’s hard enough gaining the courage to start something new and far flung as is. Building a business is not a natural act. We are conditioned from birth, through schooling, that the workforce is our destination. It takes someone who sees the world differently to be able to step off that track to build something none of us have seen before. We need to foster this. To support it like it is the arts.

We tend to punish the crazy thinkers until their idea succeeds and then we praise them and claim them as Canadian. Canada should be looking deeply and investing heavily into the entrepreneurial economy. We shouldn’t be glorifying the startup economy, we need to nurture and support entrepreneurs. Ideas will come and most will go, building a foundation of entrepreneurial thinking should be our goal. Innovation begins with ideas that aren’t funnelled through the lens of where we’ve been.

National access to funding

Canada is close here. We already have R&D tax credits and subsidies for unique projects that move innovation forward in business and research but we need more and we need it to be unencumbered. For Canada to compete at scale with countries like the US and China we need to rethink the way our most innovative companies get funding. Most of our great technology companies rely on venture capital and, eventually, need to find a US VC to fund the later rounds. Some companies on the cusp fight this duality of trying to find their next round of funding and building a great product. Unfortunately, most of our nascent technology industry is sold before they mature into real businesses. This hollows out our core. We seem to be permanently stuck on the early stage company treadmill. There are a few that break out but that is not the norm.

Access to early early funding to build a business while keeping the equity inside Canada means they have a chance to build a company for the long game. Making the funds available at the start of a project, not at the end of the fiscal year, means more focus on product development and commercialization.

To build a true innovative nation we need to support our entrepreneurs from the start. We can’t think of them as fringe until they move into the mainstream, we need to focus our attention on letting them build the new industries to move us forward. This will take a bold move by our leaders. It can be done, we’ve witnessed it during the pandemic. When we put our minds to it, this country can disrupt and surprise us by doing rather than talking.

Canada needs an identity beyond the nice nation. Identities are bestowed on or fought for and I’m saying we need a call to arms for a technology revolution in this country. Let’s take this time to deliberately shape our nation into something that is focused on the future.

What we can learn from American Idol

I have a confession to make. I watch reality television. Specifically, I watch survivor and American Idol. One has been teaching me how to get ready for a post-pandemic world for 20 years, the other on how great editing moves a story along. Both are brilliant in their own way. Both make my kids wonder if their dad is prepubescent.

Survivor was filmed and edited long before the current pandemic so the quality is still what you’d expect. Although I think being stranded on a tropical island right now sounds pretty great. American Idol started in the pre-pandemic world but after all the auditions and Hawaii performances to get down to the top 20 singers, they needed to go live and this is where they are really really excelling compared to every other “live from home” show on television.

For those not watching it right now you should at least take in one episode or some clips. The top 20 singers now need to perform from their homes across the country — a logistical nightmare for a show that used to just bring all the contestants to one place and play to a live crowd. There the production is under control, the sound and lights are on point and the only focus for the singers is to make sure they know their song.

Not your dad’s American Idol

Being in self-isolation means that each contestant must now sing from their homes from across the US and Canada. If you’ve watched any talk show on television these days you can start to understand why this could have been a disaster. It seems as though there is no concern for microphone placement or lighting or even high speed internet. Take a look at any Tonight Show clip and you’ll quickly see how hard it is to make something that doesn’t sound tinny or even have a stuttering video feed. There doesn’t seem to be a distinction between the quality of video and audio between late night television and our own Zoom meetings. Not comforting if you are the producers of American Idol.

They need to be able to ensure the production quality is as high as it would be on a stage somewhere in Los Angeles. So they shipped the right lights, the right microphones and the right cameras to each of the contestants homes with instructions on how to set it all up. We don’t have to go to that extreme for our video calls but I would expect producers of daily shows to ensure this kind of quality from the hosts home. The down home feeling of “we’re all in the same boat” is getting very very tired. Get Jimmy Fallon a mic and a high speed internet connection would ya?

I think running a singing competition from people’s homes during a pandemic is one of, if not THE, hardest thing for a reality show to accomplish. The focus is on the sound and they have nailed it. The editing is on point for sure. The performances are performed live with the American Idol band being fed in from their homes and recorded for playback during the show. This ensures that there is some authenticity in a live performance however also allows the song to sound as it should. We’ve all learned we shouldn’t do live demos over a strained system. The hosts are live, the feedback is live and there is nary a stuttering video frame or audio drop out anywhere.

Arthur Gunn performing from home

This is the kind of production you’d expect from a show like American Idol. It also sets the bar for the rest of the broadcast from home crew. It can be done but putting the effort into focusing on the right areas: Sound and lighting and a quality camera. Today a right light, a blue mic and an iPhone can do wonders. Instead of flying the guests to a studio, ship them the right equipment, controlled by the television production company, so that the quality is what we expect from a broadcast company, not from a family Zoom call.

The American Idol editing crew has always been on point — just like Survivor. The shows end up being plot driven as we watch the contestants rise from humble roots and tell their backstories. They are exceptionally well done and help us build an affinity towards them. Who doesn’t like to see the subway busker get plucked from destitution to become the next great performing artist? Now we get to see them performing in their living rooms or garages with their families behind a closed door ready to celebrate with them at the end of their song.

The pandemic has also forced the show to be more concentrated and focused. It is no longer the drawn out, 6 month process of eliminating one contestant at a time. The show went from top 20 to top 10 to top 7 in 2 episodes. The finale will be 4 weeks after the top 20 was determined. It is being broadcast once per week and voting only happens for 12 hours after the live performances. Efficiency is the new normal.

American Idol really pioneered the mass adoption of the interactive television. They’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve for just about as long as Survivor has and the rethink to accommodate home performances may change all shows going forward.

The first half century

I just turned 50.

Age was never something that shook me. Maybe when I was younger I would think about being 50 and wonder how anyone can be that old and still mean something. I think I was pretty dumb.

As far as milestone ages go this is one. The mid-century mark used to be a miracle age and you entered into your golden age. It wasn’t too long ago that turning 50 made you a marvel of science. It meant you didn’t get stomped by an elephant or drafted and killed in a world war or shipped off to Vietnam. It meant you were one step closer to the blue light special, dinner by 5pm, free tuition and skiing. It meant your best days were behind you.

Something has changed. Or maybe my perspective has changed. Either way, something has changed. 50 year olds are no longer wetting their pants and waiting for death. At least this 50-year old isn’t.

I was born in 1970 on the same day as the Kent State killings — the subject of CSNY’s Ohio. The moon was inhabited, the war in Vietnam was raging and disco was about to kill rock and roll forever. My childhood and youth were unremarkable but there are key things that stick out when I take a moment to think back.

There were big things like when my younger brother stopped breathing in the middle of the night and my parents “knew” something was wrong. I didn’t understand how, neither did they but they did and because of that “parental ESP” he was fine. Then there was that time my youngest brother developed Meningitis when he was a year old and spent weeks recovering in hospital. All but his hearing recovered.

Discovering the Montreal Expos and listening to the play by play by Duke Snider and Dave Van Horn as I fell asleep every night led to a 40 year baseball obsession. I remember how terrible of a student I was. I remember glueing my grade 5 teacher to her seat. I remember being afraid of our gym teacher in grade 7 and 8. I also remember my parents sitting with us as we watched the movie “The Day After” and realizing the world may not be a great place right now.

The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and the space shuttle Challenger exploding on liftoff stuck with me. I stayed home to watch all the shuttle launches — did that until the shuttle was retired 10 years ago. Watching humans launch themselves on top of a missile is still one of my favourite things to do. Crazy and inspiring.

This is where I first met Bruce Springsteen and we started a 40 year friendship that I’ve been able to share with my kids. I guess I preached Springsteen enough in my youth that it stuck with my friends. I’m pretty sure that when they hear Springsteen played or mentioned anywhere at any time, they think of me. That wasn’t the plan but I’m fine with it. My kids will suffer the same outcome.

The rest of the eighties were centred around high school and my mother moving to Bangladesh with my brothers. This exposed me to the most incredible parts of the world as we travelled around south east Asia for months. It was that exposure that would open my eyes to the greater world and take me on my own travels after high school to see the world solo. Touching down in India and eventually flying home from Indonesia hitting every country and beach in between.

I never took a traditional path to find work. I was always too lazy to go through the long process of university and work my way up. I needed something that would grab my attention and that I could control. So I chose the faster, less stressful world of self employment. The entrepreneurship disease. When I got back from traveling I started my first of many companies. I quickly realized that being an entrepreneur was not the easier, nor the fastest and certainly not the less stressful way to make a living. Kids, go to school and become a lawyer.

Starting a business is what has defined me since my early 20’s to this day. I think my perspective on this age is a result of having to be a life long learner in order to keep up with the pace of the world. I read 60 books a year and am always consuming and learning. I think I’m trying to make up for lost time when I didn’t read or care about education early in my life.

40+ years of friendship

There are, of course, seminal moments that stand out for me over the first 50. I remember the friends that have helped shape me over the years. We don’t see each other often but I know they are part of my DNA and I am in theirs. I found and married my partner for life. She is a patient patient woman who has brought me into a different world and given me a family that makes me ache with love. She is the only companion that makes this journey worthwhile. I’m a better man because and for her.

The most EPIC family summer vacation

Life hasn’t been easy but I don’t think it’s meant to be. My mother was someone hard to lose because of what she meant to her kids, her grandkids and her community. You don’t recover from losing your mother. One of my sons brought us to our knees, bent us, but his spirit and attitude and fight and some remarkable neurosurgery brought him back in full to us.

There have been successes and failures along the way. Jobs come and go, money comes and goes. I have learned to use a hammer and saw, to build with my hands at the same time as I build with my head. I am fit and have developed routines to keep me that way for as long as I possibly can.

Who knows what the next half century will look like but I’m stepping into it today — the first day of my next 50 years — and I feel great.

Transparent leadership

When the 2009 financial crisis hit my company I was confident we could ride it out. We had endured a pretty rough ride but our revenue was well up year over year. Sure, it was revenue that was harder to find but we did it. Then early 2010 happened and 3 months after our best year on record the company was in peril and we were forced to do layoffs.

Learning to be a leader in good times is easy. Every initiative works. Mistakes aren’t deadly. Up and to the right is a great place to be. Optimism abounds and leaders spread that around to anyone who will listen. When things go well leaders are at their most transparent.

It’s when things start to turn for the worse where leadership stripes are earned. As numbers slow and tension mounts, great leaders step up and remain transparent. The tension inside a workforce is cranked up when the leadership goes silent. They see what is happening. They see orders slowing. They see stress on the leadership of the company and they feel it. The need for leaders to not sugarcoat things at this point is the peak of leadership.

At the beginning of 2010 we noticed a dip in response rates from our top customers. Where immediate replies were the norm, they were now taking up to 3 days to respond. Payments used to arrive on time, now we were getting new payment policies of 60-90 days. Something had changed. I did what I thought was right by hunkering down with my sales and accounts teams to figure out how to move forward. They could feel it. Something was wrong. I could feel it. Something was wrong. My biggest mistake was to hold on to the responsibility to solve this issue by myself, which in hindsight was unsolvable by me alone. I slowly recoiled and kept things close to my chest. When we met with the team I did not tell them the bad stuff. I focused on the good. 60 mouths to feed plus their families. They didn’t need to know the real deal.

This was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.

There were arguments floating in my head that I’m sure you’ve had with yourself. As a leader it is your responsibility to ensure the health of the business. That is true. That burden is the thing you took on when you accepted the role. However there are a number of ways that you can do this. You can sugar coat reality and let everyone go about their business like nothing is different or you can enlist the team to help, to contribute, to change the way they operate in order to live another day to fight again. This is where transparency is the greatest asset a leadership team has.

Can you be too transparent?

My thinking at the time was clearly clouded by worry. If I told the team the truth about what we were seeing surely they would jump ship. Find work elsewhere. Leave. So I kept silent. The last thing we needed was an exodus. That would be like digging our grave another foot deeper. The thought of being this transparent scared me into not doing it.

I was wrong.

The thing that I was missing in all of this was that the people I was hiding it from were the same people that bled for me when things were better. They were adults and adults make up their own minds and by not giving them all the facts, I was depriving them of that decision. Sure, some would have left but that should have been their choice to make. Not mine.

There is a feeling when you are transparent at all times and I know you’ve felt it before. You have nothing to hide. There are no backroom conversations. There is no leadership guilt. You don’t have to “remember who you are talking to.” You just lead by trusting the people you have around you. They got you here. They’ll help by showing up or leaving. It is their choice and the only way you can allow them to make that choice is to be truthful and transparent.

Is translucent a better option?

I was told once that as a leader you needed to bring the optimism and leave the negative conversations to be among other leaders. This is what I was doing in 2010 and I know where that ended up. You need to be able to read the people and understand their ability to digest the news and move forward with it. Transparency is important but, if its bad news you are being transparent about, the optimism comes from the plan that follows the news. People will make their own decisions about how that news impacts themselves. They are grown up. Hiding bad news won’t make them stay at a role any longer than telling them about it. You can’t shield people from the truth because when they find out, the trust and credibility you’ve built as a leader is gone.

Leadership failure is a loss of trust. By obfuscating the truth or layering over it with too much false optimism you’ve moved from leader to charlatan.

There comes a time when every leader faces a moment where they have to decide how transparent they should be. It was my time in early 2010 when I had to tell my team, the team that went to war with me, the team that I loved, that we were in trouble. I had to do layoffs. It was the most painful time in my life. By not being transparent to my team throughout, I let them make decisions about their lives without the whole story. One of the people I laid off had just bought a house, his wife at just lost her job and they were expecting their second child within weeks. He didn’t see it coming because I was not transparent.

Later, when I took over a company in challenging times, I sat with the team and showed them our bank balance. I said, here’s where we are, here’s how long that buys us and here’s what we are going to do. The choice was theirs to stay or go. To get to work or find work. That team was a dream team because we were all fighting together AND they knew where the company stood.

You’ve built the team that surrounds you. This team is fighting for you because of you. The worst thing you can do is not trust them to fight harder and dig deeper when the time comes. Sure, people will leave but those that stay will stay because of the way you have led them, because they trust you and that is a team worth building.

Respect your team by giving them a choice when it actually means something.

The right grey hairs

When I was in my 20’s and knew everything I would wonder why anyone would listen to ANYONE with grey hair. They wrote books instead of blogs. They still listened to CDs instead of downloading music from Napster. They wore suits not hoodies. They were OLD. What real value could I get from them in this new Internet era. Business was different. They were just…old.

Well, it turns out that everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — gets old, even the bloggers.

I realized soon after my first company failed that I needed to understand the world of business much better. I needed to fill in the knowledge gap that was between me and the successful business owners that were 10 or 15 years older than me. The grey hairs.

You see, there are two types of grey hairs. There are those that get them and those that earn them. Let me explain.

Getting grey hair

If you live long enough, most of us will gradually get grey hair. You can be a passenger in this life and you will eventually lose your natural hair colour and go grey. It happens to us all. No amount of wisdom or hair die can hide the fact that hair turns grey. Getting grey means you’ve simply lived a life.

Earning grey hair

There are a few people that you already know with a partial or full head of stunning grey hair. This hair is different for some reason. It’s like they earned each and every one of those hairs. Each strand is like a blade of infinite wisdom. They’ve risen through the ranks, built empires and lived long enough to tell the tales. They are probably 50 but seem much wiser.

I didn’t realize the difference between the two types of grey hair — I would simply lump them all together and wonder why we hadn’t set them afloat on icebergs yet.

Then I started listening to the right grey hairs and began earning my own.

When I played team sports, coaches would also talk about finding the shortest path the ball/defender/puck. Think about an outfielder that makes a seemingly impossible catch. They didn’t follow the arc of the ball they ran towards where it should land. In a straight line. The straight line is the shortest path. It works in sports and it works in business. Grey hairs are the shortest path to understanding business.

Without a doubt there are over indexing younger people that are smarter than grey hairs. I’ve worked with many people half my current age and am blown away by their ingenuity and brilliance. Some of the smartest people I know are in their 20’s right now. Way smarter than I was at that age.

Grey hairs bring a level of calmness into the equation. Most of business is cyclical in nature. Ups and downs. New new NEW innovations that disrupt the world in one moment and then fall to the next new new new NEW thing. The underlying factor is that it is still business. The mechanisms may change but the fundamentals are the same. The techniques get refined but the outcomes are the same. The reach can be greater but the logistics are the same. Business is business no matter what the era.

Along with a high level of patience (not to be confused with being laid back), most of us have also learned how to control our ego. There is a time and place for ego to rise up but the same can be said for when to put it away and get down to work. Grey hairs are not around to inflate egos — theirs or others. I know when I speak with a younger entrepreneur that the help I offer is a voice of reason in the wilderness and just that. My words are not gospel they are a perspective from someone who has sat in that very seat and faced that very issue. Business is cyclical.

The right grey hairs act as the straight line between you and the ball. So before we all retire somewhere down in Florida and spend our days playing shuffleboard, find someone that has earned their greys and pick their brain. Remember, one day that grey hair will be you…

Survivors Remorse

Nearly 6 million Canadians have either lost their job or been impacted because of the pandemic so far. That’s nearly 1 of every 6 people in the country. Words that are floating around like “unprecedented” don’t even accurately describe what is going on. I think we have to invent a whole new vocabulary in order to capture the impact this virus is having on the country, let alone the world.

The company I work for did what it could to keep the entire team intact. No layoffs were announced when we boarded up our offices and started working from home. We hunkered in place for almost 7 weeks until the time came that layoffs would happen. Almost 1000 people were let go and close to 300 were put on temporary leave until we reopen our offices. 22% of the workforce. As with every company that has gone through this over the few months, this was hard. We had to say goodbye to members of our team and then somehow roll up our sleeves and start the hard work again.

Companies often talk about their values. They print cards out and hand them to eager new starts or they paint it on a wall in their office for everyone to see. Good companies imbue their values by consistent action that reflect those values. The company I work for does just that. While the fire was raging in the economy around us, they calmed us and did their absolute best to keep us as one team. Only once it was very clear that business as usual wasn’t going to come back any time soon, it was time to take action and make sure the company remained healthy until the world eventually emerged from behind our doors.

Values aren’t slogans, they are actions that are consistently demonstrated. The company I work for lives by its values and they were on display during the worst of times.

The majority of us made it through the cuts but are still reeling from it. Amid the disarray that are layoffs and half finished projects now with no leads, we need to pick things up and begin running again. All the while the little voice in our heads were asking the questions to ourselves that we are afraid for the answers if we verbalize them. They are questions that wonder why we got the nod to stay instead of our co-worker? Why we survived and they didn’t.

Survivors remorse.

This is a combination of anxiety for your co-workers that were let go, tinged with sadness for them mixed with an overwhelming sense of relief that it wasn’t you. This has played out everywhere there were layoffs. The intense jubilation that your job is intact suppressed by the knowledge that other jobs were not. High and low at the same time.

It’s also a sense of uneasiness because it could happen again, at any time. We are at the mercy of someone else’s decision making. We don’t control the situation. Often mass layoffs seem arbitrary and it is hard to rationalize. When I had to do layoffs it was an exercise of refocusing at the core. Like the heart that stops pumping blood to your extremities in an act of self-preservation, layoffs do the same thing for the business. Protect the heart to keep it pumping while we figure the rest out. Some people that get let go are low performers. Others aren’t. There is no pattern other than protection. In a large company there isn’t enough time to adjust employee size on merit. It would be endless debates between the leadership fighting for good people. Layoffs are hard and they hurt everyone but there has to be impartiality — you have to suspend your humanity for a second to be able to see the light and the impact and the future.

Then you can have remorse. Then you can wonder why. But just for a second. After that, it is time to pull up your socks, check the fear and anger at the door and get to work so this doesn’t happen again.