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.

Delivery IS the product

If there is one thing that this COVID19 pandemic has shown us is the power in delivery. Most of us have had a good delivery experience and, of course, we’ve all had a nightmare experience. That’s because for most of the history of deliveries it has been an afterthought, a benefit, an outcome of the “real” effort of selling.

I remember when Amazon and Didi emerged with their plethora of products that couldn’t be found anywhere near my house. Books, electronics, clothes — the list goes on. It was so easy to purchase what you needed but then the wait. Oh the wait! How could something take 20 seconds to purchase but 20 business days to get to me? Being in Canada added to the woes as things would get stuck at the border or, even now, the taxes levied at the border are sometimes equal to the cost of the actual product I’m purchasing. Adding in the $US to $CAN dollar conversion and those days of an online deal are long gone.

The thing is that we were ok with this because we were early adopters. Same day or next day delivery at that time was done locally by bike couriers. Postal mail was a steady beast if you planned ahead and FedEx and UPS were last resort options. This was the state of delivery and the fact we could order product online and get it delivered…at the discretion of the delivery service…was good enough for all of us at the time.

Times are different now and so too is the state of delivery.

The mailbox is a funny thing. Sometimes it is a little box of terrors when bills arrive or your first post-Christmas credit statement. Other times it is the epitome of anticipation. Like most of my generation, I was part of the Columbia Records club where they would ship me 10 records for one cent and then send me one album per month for full price. Every month I would wait for the mailman to come by and it was either a great day or I would be forced to wait one more to see what tomorrow brought. I didn’t know then but that experience — no, not the purchasing of the product — but the one where I get my order in my hands — is the killer feature of commerce.

The purest in me says a little anticipation reinforces the purchase decision. Does it? Before online commerce and home delivery when you wanted a product you would go visit it in the store or see it in a magazine or on TV. That creates at least a little bit of anticipation making the product seem a little more valuable in your mind. I try to teach my kids about anticipation when they are looking at buying something. Regardless If we end up sleeping on a purchase or not, we still want to hold it the moment we buy it.

It’s easy to buy, it’s harder to get.

There is no lack of commerce options. If you can’t find what you are looking for locally you can jump online and find it there for sure. So if inventory is more of a commodity now and, all things being equal, the price is relatively the same everywhere, what is the differentiator? What makes someone buy a product that you can get anywhere for the same price?

For me it is the magic in the delivery.

Don’t be confused with the “ships in 1 day” slogan. The product often is shipping in a day BUT delivery is the tax we all pay and it is often hidden until after you’ve made your decision to buy. “Can it really take 3 weeks to get here?” “Nah” but it really does. This is what will kill companies that don’t understand that the joy is GETTING the product, not spending money to buy it.

Companies that understand why Amazon focused on building their delivery infrastructure while they built out their product offerings know that delivery is their magic. It has enabled them to get to a point where ordering something online and having it materialize in your hands on the same day is now an expected outcome. This is bad news for any other company that still thinks that their products are special and worth the wait. That may be the case but there are other similar products out there that will arrive 3 weeks faster.

When I was 18 my mother was living in Bangladesh so we would spend family vacations travelling through India and surrounding countries. On one of those trips my father purchased a dancing shiva cast iron statue that stood about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. He spent around $200 on it and asked to have it shipped to our home in Canada. Months went by and it never arrived. Soon it was a distant memory, and then a lesson in optimism UNTIL 2 years almost to the day, the dancing shiva landed on our doorstep.

Recently I bought a pillow cover from an online store and only after the purchase did I realize it was from a store in Morocco. The product was what I wanted but it took 4 months to arrive. Many times I reached out to the store owner and I felt as though I was reminding him to ship my product every single time.

While these experiences were 32 years apart — and aside from the fact that I didn’t need to travel to Morocco to buy the pillow cover — delivery was still the hurdle.

The purchase is NOT the end of the transaction. Great companies understand that their brand experience ends when the product is in their customer’s hands.

As we emerge from this Pandemic, we will see a new learned behaviour that is delivery. Local stores that were forced to jump online to stay in business will need to continue selling online. The selling isn’t the hard part given there are companies that will enable that for next to nothing. The hard part will be nailing the delivery. It is THE experience that is often forgotten during a transaction but THE most important metric in customer satisfaction. It doesn’t matter that I can buy a product online, my joy is now related to how quickly I can get my hands on it.

Data is the New Electricity…not Oil

The thinking is that data has become the new oil. It made a lot of sense given the fact that oil is what drives most of the world’s economy, dictates foreign policy and results in tremendous wealth to arbitrary nations.

The analogy that data is like oil probably fits because, just like oil, there is a race among a small number of companies to own and control its flow. The volume of oil isn’t a random thing. Had we known how intense our reliance on oil would become I’m fairly sure early nations would not have focused on the spice trade, or colonized India instead of pulling the future oil producing countries into their kingdoms.

Now the world is at the mercy to the price of oil. Not only the price we pay to fill our cars, buses and rockets but the price it exacts on our stock markets and our environment. Our entire planet is heavily weighted on the price of oil — where it goes, we go — and the price of oil is controlled by a small block of companies and kingdoms. The fate of our economy is in control by too few people and most decisions we make as nations have this at the centre. We dig up nature to extract it, we dig up nature to transport it and we give up our future habitation of the planet to use it.

And then we call data the new oil…but I hope we start thinking of it as the new electricity and here’s why.

Products and economies are built around oil. It isn’t just a part of our world, it is the influence that moves us, literally. Think of our transportation networks of streets, tracks, runways and launch pads. Our entire global infrastructure has been built and relies on one product in order to function. Oil is the centre of all our products from cars, to planes to rockets and even plastics and kids toys. The list is long and oil is not just a cog in this wheel, it is the hub that all products are built around.

This dependency on oil is exactly where we don’t want to be with data. Where we are in the oil economy means that to break up with it is next to impossible. The power the oil cartels have and the reach the oil ecosystem has makes it impossible to stop building products around it any time soon. Oil has become our planet’s heroin and businesses and countries the junkies.

Data as oil? No thank you.

Electricity is something that we take for granted but is mostly always there in most countries. For a lot of us, the switch is magic. Flip it and light comes on. We don’t even think about it. We’ve even become a little better at harnessing the power of the sun to help bring off-grid electricity to developing countries. It is a democratized source of energy that can be replenished with alternative sources at its root.

And this is the key. If I can’t get electricity from my grid or there is no electrical grid, I can hardness the sun or water or a hand crank. It may not be ideal, it may not allow me light up my entire house but I can find a way to bring power to a device or a lamp. It is, in its essence, available to anyone. Conversion and storage is an issue but those are problems that humanity will eventually solve.

Inventors and entrepreneurs don’t set out to build a product around electricity. Homeowners build a house and electricity is a component. Car manufacturers build cars with a spot for a battery to ensure it has a replenishable source of power. Electricity is an essential component of our daily lives but it is a democratized enabler to get our screens lit.

Lost in all of this conversation of data is the new oil is where that data comes from. WE are that data. The actions we take online and in real life is where the data comes from. Us. It isn’t extracted from beneath the earth. It comes from our actions, our clicks, our behaviours. It is also replenishable. The trough of the data well is endless right now. We can’t have that data mined and owned by a small group of for-profit companies that sell us to the highest bidder. Our digital avatar is being gathered up to sell to advertisers, to make a small number of companies that control that data a lot of money. It is one-sided and invasive. The oil nations are protected by borders but the companies that own our data are governed by laws that can’t keep up with the changes that are happening. The control of oil has led to wars. Are we going to eventually need to invade Facebook? If so, how?

The concept that data is like electricity is about making sure that the power that comes from the data is not controlled by a small cartel. The use of the data shouldn’t be the centre of any products but a contributing factor. Data is important but, like electricity, it should be the thing that is part of the finished product but not the core as to why the product was built.

Future industry is going to leverage data, that we know. What we need to avoid is this future industry making data its core business. The use of our data needs to be additive and not its reason. Oil has propelled our world forward. It has pulled countries out of recessions, built massive companies, laid the foundation of our roads and highways. It has led to the expansion of our cities, our knowledge of other planets. It has had a profound impact on our planet — but it has come at such a cost of reliance that we can’t break free of its grasp. It is at the centre of our existence right now and it holds too much power. We can’t let that happen to our data. We can’t let this be owned by the few at the expense of the many. We need to allow alternatives. To let others disrupt. To allow opportunities from all corners of the world.

Data is core to our economic growth but the power to choose where and when it is used cannot be in the hands of large companies. It needs to be turned on like electricity, converted to something meaningful and discarded. Data needs to be part of the system, not the system itself.


Photo by Alexandre Bringer from Pexels

The brotherhood and sisterhood of The Boss

I remember the first time I heard a Bruce Springsteen song. It was in 1984 and the song was Dancing in the Dark. I was a 14 year old kid ready to be influenced by music but it would take a trip to Thailand 2 years later and a bootleg copy of Nebraska for me to really hear Springsteen for the first time.

I’m not really sure what it is about Springsteen that has so captured me. How is it that I’ve seen him 30 times in my life and continue to this day to find such incredible connection with his music is something to unpack for sure.

It started with his story telling. It is an incredible art to be able to tell vivid as life tales in under 4 minutes. Springsteen has always been hailed as a character writer and that is true of the motley crew of people he has documented or brought voice to through his songs. To do this requires an eye for the small things that we can all relate to and bring those to life while moving the story along. But all successful artists do that.

He’s maniacal in the way he constructs his music, placing single notes or creating a wall of sound the way he did on the song Born To Run — that opening is like getting punched in the face by music. He constructed that, piece by piece, sound by sound, over a 7 month period in the studio. He pulls from his head the sound and makes it real. But other artists do that as well.

Springsteen has picked his themes and has remained current from the 70’s through to today. He’s a working class hero that has never held a 9-5 job. He sings about the things we need to hear right when we need to hear them. The 70’s were freewheeling youth and touching on early adulthood. The 80’s were post-Vietnam reckoning, introspective relationship challenges and using his voice to highlight the inequalities many suffer. The 90’s were almost empty but again focused on bringing to life the stories of importance around border challenges in Southern California. The early 2000’s were repairing a broken world after 9/11 and the last decade has been prolific around parenthood, finding roots in the world and experimentation. Movies, books, broadway plays — he’s attacked us from every sense and medium and it has been a marvel to watch. Other artists have done some of this.

So what is it about Springsteen that has endured for decades in an industry where the average lifespan is measured in minutes? Part of it has to be him. His legend. Most of it is the brotherhood and sisterhood that surrounds him. Us. His fans.

My first good friends in life were Springsteen fans. Cordial at first, like dating, we would find key areas we all could talk about and then one night someone would put on a Springsteen album and we were bonded for life. Next would come the concerts and waiting in line with our brethren. No matter the background, the socio-economic status, age, religion, colour, or sex, we were there for one common reason and that was Springsteen. It is a common language, one that we all speak. It was a wide group of classes with a single pure thing in common and we all fit in. He is a leveller. When we sing his lyrics back to him he is teaching us connection and community.

He is a history class, an ethics class and the class clown. He takes his craft more seriously than most of us do. He gives us lessons every single night on doing the work. His concerts are legendary because of the concerts. There is nothing that he leaves in the tank and he does it this way every time he steps on the stage. There is no take, he gives openly.

If you’ve seen him in concert recently you will see parents singing along with their children. I know my role as a parent has been to make sure my kids have been home schooled on Springsteen. He has transcended generations and by doing this he has families singing from the same page for a few hours at a time.

Springsteen sings about things that are timeless — that you could listen to today or tomorrow and still resonate. He’s been able to capture moments in life that don’t get stale (ok, 57 channels aside…). There is always a song that either reminds us of better days or helps us gain perspective on where we are in this world. And of courses the songs that help us remember the friends we’ve made. I also think about those days ahead when my kids are on their own and they hear a Springsteen song and are reminded of their youth and guilt forces them to pick up the phone and call their old man. It’s all about connection isn’t it?

That’s the brotherhood and sisterhood of The Boss.

Get to the root

This world is way too complex. Every day we have to work hard to do the seemingly simplest things and we’ve come to accept it as normal. It’s normal to have to fill things in triplicate. It’s normal that it takes a week to do your tax return (or pay someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to do it). It’s normal to wait in line to renew a drivers license. It’s normal to visit a community centre to vote in an election. It’s normal that I can send a friend money immediately but it takes 15 business days for a refund.

Why?

We’ve created a very complex infrastructure that makes it harder and harder to get things done quickly. Our countries have been built on top of archaic principles that haven’t adapted with time, instead we’ve layered on that complexity when we should be clearing it to the root and rebuilding to the times. This complexity uses too much effort and wastes money.

Attacking the root means cleaning up the things that aren’t important or relevant anymore or that can be simplified. How many times have you heard of an arcane law still in effect in cities around the world. Laws that have been in place for 100 years that only made since in a different era. We wonder why it is still there, laugh about it and forget it but it is emblematic of a bigger human challenge.

We like progress at the expense of doing the work.

It is much easier to simply add new laws or new provisions to old laws that don’t make sense in order to make them relevant. We do this to ourselves because it is easier to do it than it is to strip the legislation down and remove those laws that are no longer relevant. Our tax infrastructure is a perfect example. The regulations change so often that we now require an entire industry of people to make sure our filings are accurate. We simply hide bad code by writing more bad code. Our world runs because of this complexity. This results in humanity having to support an entire industry that is needed to support businesses so revenue is recognized in the correct way. We have added complexity instead of solving the core problem.

City infrastructure is a good example of attacking the root. In Canada we typically have 2 seasons: Winter and construction. There is a reason we have so much construction and it is a lesson in root planning. We live on top of pipes and sewers and electrical grids — all the amenities and complexities and necessities of modern life. When our infrastructure gets old, we don’t simply patch it where we can and move on. We don’t build a secondary pipe that bypasses the first pipe and call it a day like we do with our laws and tax systems. We know that won’t hold up so we eventually dig up roads, we pull out corroded pipes and replace them with modern materials that will last for 50 years. We attack the root cause of the problem and we solve it. Why? Because if we didn’t do it this way, we wouldn’t be able to flush our toilets, turn on our TVs or get clean water reliably. A breakdown of these essential services would cost the cities their taxes, businesses their revenue opportunities and both would suffer from lowered reputations. This would eventually lead to slow employment growth, lower the population growth, a decrease in the inability to attract more businesses and, ultimately, irrelevance.

Solving the root is not an option for our city infrastructure so why don’t we learn from this?

Nature has been telling us what to do from the get go. When I was younger, I watched my mother garden. She would start in the winter by potting plants in the house and let them have warmth and sunlight as they waited for spring. Once the weather was right, my mother would take the plants outside, dig them up right down to the roots and plant them in the earth. Those roots, the things that made the plants part of the planet, fed and nurtured their growth, allowing them to bear the fruits they were intended to. Without the roots, they are inorganic, dead things that disappear back into the ground. Deep solid roots are what make or break your harvest. That hasn’t ever changed. Plants haven’t altered their evolution for anything better because a root is as simple and effective as possible. No complexity, no evolution. No root? No plant. No plant? No fruit.

The root is the thing.

Even as we adopted technology into our lives it was used to mask the complexity we’ve built around us. Our computers and smartphones, now incredibly powerful machines, handle a tremendous amount of complexity that masks the root of many problems. We’ve come to rely on them for the simple things like entertainment — a portable version of a record player or television set — but we’ve also started to rely on their ability to hide the complexity, the root problems, all behind a submit button. This is both a blessing and a curse. It ties things up in a nice little bow — all those loose ends that we’ve struggled with until now — and we can let the code handle the root challenge. This is great! Until you realize that we’ve built so much complexity in order to avoid solving the root that eventually no humans will understand the way our systems work. Maybe this is why we fear true AI?

Companies face this challenge all the time. The good ones aren’t afraid to dig up their roots and replant or even rethink the soil they’ve chosen. The industry calls it a pivot but it is really digging deep enough to solve the problem facing them instead of piling on more dirt and hoping. The brave companies do this. Some companies make it work, others simply can’t.

Our cities may be getting the infrastructure right but some of the things we are doing on the ground aren’t even close to attacking the root. We accept that a certain number of our residents will be challenged to find work or afford a home or even have access to fresh food. We’ve built an entire infrastructure around this very challenged subset of our population. Community housing and local food banks abound. Here we are focusing on solving the problem for today, not solving for the root cause that focuses on eradicating it completely. There should be no reason we have to have any of these social services if we help solve the root cause of each. It may cost a lot up front. It may require a shift in thinking. It may require a lot of patience. But solving the root means eliminating the problem not just pushing it off to the next generation.

So many of our decisions are made in the context of the present. I’m as guilty as the next person. Who has time to stop and dig when there are so many pressing issues compounding daily? Eventually you will end up solving for problems that aren’t relevant to your success. These are just the outcomes of losing sight of your root. And we all know that without a solid root, there is no fruit.

Are all habits bad?

So many books have been written about building habits. Tiny moves in a different direction towards changing a behaviour. Some advocate large transformation steps, others smaller incremental ones. I’ve read them all, tried them all but I’m pretty sure I’m a routine guy, not a habit guy. Is there a difference?

Habits have always been a negative thing that I’m doing. As a kid I had a habit of sucking my thumb (just until my late teens mind you). I had a habit of skipping classes in high school. I had a smoking habit. I had a habit of drinking too much coffee, eating too many bags of chips. Habits were bad.

Habits are always things that I seem to want to quit so I read all those books and what I pulled from them was mostly around building routines. Routines lead to habit change so the emphasis for me was always on building routines around everything I do.

When I was young and stupid I smoked cigarettes. It’s hard to quit that habit so I looked for an easy routine change that would help. There isn’t one by the way. I settled on a small computerized pocket aide called Lifesign. It reoriented my smoking pattern and then gradually, almost imperceptibly, reduced the number of cigarettes that I smoked in a day until 45 days after I started using the machine I had kicked the habit. By forcing me to change my routine around smoking I was able to quit.

The problem with habits is that the perception is you need to work at something for between 14-21 days until that thing becomes a habit. I don’t know if that is true but having something just become a habit isn’t enough to keep it a habit. Just doing it for that long does not mean it will stick. Building a routine gives it a chance. Although, come to think of it, it took less time for me to make smoking a habit and probably takes far less time for people to make drugs a habit…Bad habits are absolutely easier to pick up then to shed.

So I’ve given up on the term “habit” and will stick with routines. Habits are dead to me until I start smoking again and pick up hard drugs.

I have an exercise habit. I work out regularly and have since I quit smoking over 20 years ago. It was hard to get into it but I did it through sheer routine building. It starts with timing of when to go to the gym. The most efficient for me is first thing in the morning — early — so routine #1 is to get up early. That has cascading effects on what I do the night before. My family is a notoriously late night family so I had to break that habit with a new routine of getting to bed relatively early. “Calling it quits early” as my mother would say as would get to bed at a decent time. To do this I had to fight the habit of coffee after dinner, TV shows after 10pm and reading in bed until all hours. I had to kill 30 habits in order to make myself fit. All that before I even made it to the gym!

Now my gym routine is easy. I lay out my gym clothes on a chair next to my bed the night before so when I wake up I immediately get dressed in them and I’m committed and in the right frame of mind. It is now automatic. I’m up, downstairs and on my way to the gym within minutes of waking. It is as much of a routine as breathing for me now. Sometimes I don’t even remember doing it. That’s when you know it is a routine.

I approach much of my day like this. It takes a little forethought but it is deliberate thinking that builds routine.

I’ve recently taken up daily writing and added it to my morning routine. I prep the night before by setting up my computer so it is waiting for me in my writing spot. Now when I wake up, get dressed in my gym clothes and head downstairs, I grab a cup of coffee, and sit down to write for 30 minutes with headphones on, cancelling the outside world. I get 1000 words done and then I’m gone to the gym.

It isn’t magic but it does require preparation and commitment to the process.

I really began to understand routine when I had kids and, oddly enough, a dog. Both require strict routines in order to create order. I had the added challenge of having twins so without routine there is just absolute chaos. There was routine around feeding, changing and sleeping for the kids (oh and keeping them ALIVE). Walking, discipline and pack rules for the dog. The kids forced me to be patient about building routines for them and us as a family. The dog, well, she trained me pretty well to adhere to her routines…

If you want to understand why we humans do what we do and dive deep into the psychology of change to break and create habits that’s your call. That’s not habit change. No amount of book learning gave me motivation or the tools to change habits. It seems to me that the books I read were coping mechanisms for me to hold on to the bad habits a little while longer — I had to learn what the deep seated psychosis was that made me do what I do. I stalled, read more books, stalled, read more books. I did this until I realized that the books wouldn’t give me the answers I needed and I was on my own to do it or not.

Some routines will work for you — other won’t. That’s just reality. Don’t let your bad habit of reading books on habits stop you from building better routines for yourself.

Maybe the first routine you should build is how to put the books down…

Why it’s hard to work from home

There used to be a stigma about working from home. The story always starts with sleeping in, working in pyjamas and binge watching Netflix. There was an air of unprofessionalism to it all. Companies had policies against it because it was so egregious. There was a specific type of job that was always better suited to this type of work — creatives, coders, writers, artists. That’s it. The rest of us needed to be in the office because, well, just because. If this pandemic has shown us anything it is that being productive from home is a necessity and we were completely unprepared for any of it — well, most of us anyway.

Working from home is not easy. I’ve done it for 9 of my working years and it takes a very different mentality than working from the office. It takes a strict adherence to routine in order to work and most of us don’t have that in us. The routine isn’t just about waking up and getting to the office, that’s just our autopilot guiding us. We know that if we don’t at least get to work then we don’t get paid. The routine for working from home is completely different and requires a discipline muscle that does not exist in most of us today. Waking up and getting to work, at home or at the office, is not the problem. It’s what happens during working hours where a specific muscle needs to be flexed and people that work from home have it.

Working from home has always been seen as a privilege — even today during a pandemic there are many service and front line workers that don’t have the luxury of working from home. It is a unique segment brought on by the way we work and the tools we have at our disposal. Being able to work from home is because of how work has evolved. Working from home 20 years ago meant you ran a daycare in your living room, today it could mean you run a multi-million dollar digital business. The only difference is that we are living in the most connected and bandwidth-rich time in our history — and it will only get more so.

Yet, despite the fact we all live on tools designed for remote work (Google Drive, Hangouts/Zoom, Slack and email) all day everyday, we do it from the office, messaging coworkers instead of talking to them. These tools were designed for remote work and remote collaboration but we’ve been using them wrong this entire time. We’ve been remote workers hiding in the offices around the world and we didn’t even know it.

The stigma is what is blocking us. That fact that you can be productive at home has been ignored. There is very little training when it comes to how to work from home and make sure we all balance life outside of work. The digital tools we use don’t come with instructions on how — and more importantly, when — we should all use them. We are handed an email address, a Slack account and told to communicate with each other. Some companies aren’t even that clear and have multiple messaging services that they use. This just creates confusion and a loss of productivity. The lack of teaching on how and when to use these tools has made them overflow with internally company flotsam. This is the problem that needs to be solved.

When you work from home you see the gaps in most companies that allow it. If you work for a company that allows you to work from home — we see a lot of people “allowed” to work from home 1-2 days per week — it is most likely seen as a perk. Make no mistake, if the only support WFH employees get are the same tools they have in the office, without training or tools, this is not a perk. It is less stressful and there is less scrutiny working from an office. It is EASIER to work from the office. Period.

It comes down to a mind shift inside the company. If work from home is going to be something that employees do, then they need the tools, training and support to do so. Companies must take the needs of the WFH employee as seriously as they do those that work from the offices. They are cheaper (no snacks, no infrastructure costs, etc.), have a higher quality of life (when supported), more dedication to the company and can be more productive if support properly.

The future of work is not all at home. It can’t be for everyone all the time for obvious reasons. Humans are social beings mostly. The day is divided between working hours and personal time and this is the largest challenge that lands on WFH employees. Dividing the day is a crucial skill. Most people new to this world end up feeling tired and burdened and work more hours or extend their work into their personal time. Inexperienced managers or executives who are not well versed in how this works put added pressure on employees and themselves. They feel that by adding additional reporting processes or check up meetings they will be able to keep tabs on employees. The right combination of faith in their hiring process, confidence in proven employees, the right tools/training and trust that the work will get done as a result are table stakes. The difference is in the mindset of the employers today. Working from home is not a perk anymore to be looked at as a day off. It needs to be harmonized with the rest of the business and institutionalized at the top.

Only when this shift in mindset happens will we get to a point where there is no differentiation between working from home and just plain work.

Seeking deeper fulfillment

My mother was someone that I admired greatly. All mothers should be admired because they are mothers. They are the clock that keeps the beat of the household while holding down their job, knowing where everything is and where you’ve been. It is uncanny how disproportional the genders’ capabilities are at juggling this world but when it comes to mothers, there are none like them.

My mother was a principled and driven woman. Aside from raising four kids — including one of us who was profoundly deaf — she managed to find causes she could fight for and influence. I didn’t realize it until much later in life of course, that her drive to make change was there all the time. She was always involved in our neighbourhood associations when we were kids, even running our local activities group for years while we were in grade school. She was there trying to make our hood safer.

She was a closet activist and one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met. She studied Russian History and, aside from her family, her great love was Southeast Asia. Her parents were diplomats from Europe and is the only relative that has ever had a sweet sixteen debutante ball. But you wouldn’t know that of her because that was who she was. I think she was a person that was put here to shake things up a little. Her parenting was demure but you didn’t want to have her wrath upon you and that was her style. She was never really angry but you didn’t want to disappoint her. That was worse.

My mother worked for the greater good. When all her kids were in school she started working at CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, as a project lead. CIDA was at one point the steward of much of the Government of Canada’s international development budget. The organization would run projects to help developing nations build a sustainable economic and social path for themselves. These projects were specific, challenging, all-consuming and impactful. The programs my mother ran were at the community level and on the ground in countries that were not very hospitable to women in positions of authority. Her first posting was to Dacca, Bangladesh for 3 years. Her second was Islamabad, Pakistan for the better part of 4 years arriving a few months before a coup and a few years before 9/11. Not easy but she was there for the greater good.

She was unique in that she wouldn’t live on the Canadian compound in these countries. She would find a home in a neighbourhood and live around people she was working to help. Her friends were not other Canadians she was working with, they were her neighbours, local coworkers and people she was working to help. She was there to understand, to move things in the right direction. She was there for purpose and could only do it if she was in it, not on the periphery.

My mother retired on principle while she was working on her last program in Northern Africa on de-mining Sudan and surrounding countries. She said it was the toughest thing she’d worked on and that says a lot for a woman who was teaching Muslim women their rights inside Muslim countries. But that wasn’t the thing that made her leave her mission. The Canadian Government was cutting our committed contribution to foreign aide such that she couldn’t stand around and be a part of it. She retired early on principle and is the only person that I know that really meant it.

Like so many of us as we age and reflect we start to search for meaning in our lives and tend to look to our accomplishments as a way to judge the book we’ve written. My mother was never that person. Her life was reflected in the outcomes and impact she had on those around her. She probably knew that she wouldn’t live long enough to see her efforts have an impact but she must have been at peace with that because she continued to try to make her little part of the world a better place by helping those in need. Her life gave meaning to others and I think that gave meaning to hers — although she never really verbalized it that way. She found great joy in her job because she was slowly, meticulously, building layer upon layer upon layer of impact that have had a cumulative effect on thousands or maybe tens of thousands of people around the world.

This is what I think of when I try to model what I do with work and what fulfillment looks like to me. It is the standard I hold myself to when I reflect on my short life and where I would like it to go and the impact my efforts could contribute. How and where can I find a deeper and greater reason for being other than for success on a spreadsheet? My mother set the bar very high, her quest was to reshape her part of the world one person at a time and if I judge myself against her example I am not there yet.

It’s taken me most of my adult life to figure out that the hole in the work that I’ve done is because of the example my mother has set for me. I didn’t quite understand that in order to really be fulfilled, to be satiated with the role I play and the place I hold in this world, I need to be a part of something bigger — something that makes us better. I hope to make the community I live in a better place for my kids to grow in to. I hope to shape my kids is a way that makes them hold dear the lessons that my mother implanted in me and do it by example.

Anne Woodbridge made an impact here, one that will never get recognized beyond those who knew her. She did it because she loved doing it. She loved the people, the places, the challenges and most of all she loved doing the good work because it meant she was moving forward. Moving forward in the right way always brings fulfillment.

There HAS to be a plan

I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid plans. They always seem to be the opposite of being agile. They have rules. They are strict. They don’t allow for any kind of deviations. They are, well, plans. And I mostly hate them.

But not right now.

The world is in a weird place. It’s not only that we are desperately fighting a foe that is cunning and ruthless. The human race has done that before. It’s that we are locked in our homes and locked out of life. There is no plan for where we are right now, that part is clear. We’ve never been here before and, for the most part, the global people are rolling with it as best as can be expected. Most of our global and local leaders are doing their part to put the population at ease and we all seem to be slowly settling in to the new normal routine of remote working and supporting each other. We are also learning how to live with our families or yearning for company if you live alone.

The real question is what’s next? How long can we go on like this? The answer cannot be we don’t know and forever. There has to be a plan.

Shelter in place is not a plan. Nor is wait and see. We need a global agreement on what “safe” looks like. When will it be safe to be allowed back into the world? Telling us that our current situation could last for 12-18 months is not a plan. It may be an uncomfortable fact but it’s not a plan.

It really is time to lead. To give us all hope that when this ends, we will be ok. Life will come back to whatever life looks like and we will be able to share a meal with family and friends again.

We can’t control the unknown so there is no reason to speculate on what exact day we will have control of the spread or when a vaccine will be ready. We can’t plan for that so let’s just say that it will come some time in the future. We also can’t wait for that to be a reality before we are able to get back to work and life. A little hope here, a little leadership here, would go a long way.

What does a safe enough world look like before a cure? What are the metrics that we need to hit in order for us to be released? When we hit those milestones, who goes back to work/school first? What businesses are allowed to be re-opened? What is our new normal when we go to restaurants? Grocery stores? Movies? Concerts? What restrictions will there be on travel? How can we ensure there is not a rebound because of our negligence in adhering to these rules? What are the new new rules of life engagement?

You know, a plan.

I’m not asking for a date for when this will happen. We just need to know that once we cross some magic recovery threshold (0 new cases for 2 weeks?) our leaders have a plan for what’s next. We can’t make a recovery plan as it is happening the way we did when this started (and continue to do today).

It is this uncertainty that humans are battling right now. I think we’ve adapted very quickly to our new schedules and, except for the future Darwin Award winners out there, have tried our hardest to keep our families, friends and communities safe. A lot has been asked of us and we have answered with a profound and thorough response. And as more draconian measures are put on us we have a right to ask harder questions of our leaders. We need some give as more and more is taken.

This uncertainty could be eliminated by laying out how we think we will recover — knowing that it will evolve and doesn’t have an exact start date. We have a lot of time on our hands, thinking time. Our children are asking us the hard questions and we have no answers other than wait and see. We need some sort of sign that our leaders are really thinking about the future. A small injection of optimism by just talking about what’s next would go a long way right now.

The other side of this will be hard. It will be the defining moment of a generation. A shared experience that simply reminds us that we are neighbours on this rock despite the distance between us all. We have seen the best in humanity during the harshest of hours and it has happened without thought or threat. We are ready to embrace what comes next, we just need hope.

And a plan.

The power of the very next

In 2016 my son Jack had a headache. It was severe enough to prompt a kid that never called home because he was sick to do just that. I was nearby at work and made my way to the school to grab him and bring him home for some Advil and care from his mom.

I dropped him off and thought nothing of it. Went on with my day as usual. Picked up some dinner on my way home — Pho — and sat and ate a regular meal. After dinner Jack went up to his room to read and the rest of us finished dishes and started gearing down for the night. He came back down from his room a few minutes later and said that he was having a hard time reading, that the words weren’t making sense, then he blanked out. He said he was feeling sick so I raced him up to the bathroom only to have him enter a full seizure.

This is where my fundamental approach to life had to be altered.

A 911 call and an ambulance ride to our Children’s Hospital found us in uncharted waters. We found out that night that Jack had a growth behind his right ear but it was obscured by blood so we would have to wait for the body to naturally disperse the blood before we could see what we were really up against. After many tests and some very difficult phone calls home, Jack was admitted for an extended stay and we set upon our harrowing journey into this unknown.

The consequences were big with this one. There were monumental uncertainties that, no matter how many ways or times I would ask, there just weren’t answers that would completely satisfy my need to know. I found myself asking and asking and getting frustrated with the lack of clarity to help ease our minds. I would immediately jump to the bigger picture as this is what I was prone to do. In my mind I needed to see the path backwards. To start with what the problem was and work to a solution. This is what I’ve done my entire life as an entrepreneur — trying to solve a problem that, for the most part, was a made up hypothesis. So I used that approach with Jack and his angry brain.

This is where my fundamental approach to life had to be altered. There were so many uncontrollable outcomes that to focus on those high-level challenges would leave me a hobbled mess but I needed to help. To be there for Jack and his brother and his mother. So I watched what his doctors were doing and saying and started to emulate their diagnostic approach. They would do rounds to their patients and observe how their night unfolded. They would ask more questions than anyone I know, trying to probe, to understand what really happened over night that the monitors and data weren’t telling them. They would get multiple perspectives from everyone in the room, ideas, anything, and then they would choose the very next step to take. They wouldn’t focus on the unknowns and try to clear a path that made sense to them, they would slowly, methodically decide on the very next step in the treatment for their patients. Then they would leave (often to 1000 questions from me) until returning for their afternoon rounds where, at the end of the questions, would make a decision on what the very next step in treatment would be. And this continue for our first 3 week stay in the hospital.

Now, all along this path, our doctors and nurses would help us understand what was going on and they were real with us. Telling us almost the truth but making sure not to over simplify or hypothesize. They wouldn’t let themselves do what I was doing. Looking at best and worst case scenarios, they would simply tell me what they’ve observed and what that means. Every day was an exercise in patience and observation. Slow movements forward on some days, zero on others. It was painful but taught me a valuable life lesson and one that I still observe today.

Up to this point I was not a patient man. My expectations were that my teams aim for something, move quickly to get there, take action immediately and then move on. Sometimes what I perceived as a lack of visible forward motion meant that I caused a massive amount of angst among my team which, when in a leadership position, creates an unhealthy environment to be around. No one is able to get their work done if someone is constantly changing the game in mid-play.

What I realized from Jack’s doctors is that, in order for me to help and to remain sane, I needed to focus on the very next task at hand. This meant that I needed to stop thinking of the big picture — to stop trying to solve for something that hadn’t been identified yet — and start narrowing my scope to what was directly in front of me. What was the very next thing I needed to do for Jack. So I did. I stopped asking questions that no one had answers to and instead started asking what was happening next and what was I supposed to do to support my family. Once I did this that feeling of overwhelm vanished. I wasn’t constantly thinking in the future (which, at the time, was bleak), I was making sure Jack was receiving the right medications, that he was active in his routine, that he was eating properly, entertained properly and connecting with his family. At the same time, I was present for him, my wife and his brother. I kept everyone in our family up to date but made sure everyone was focused on the things that we could control and that we did know. Not the “what ifs” — although I did allow myself to venture there late at night as I slept in Jack’s hospital room. That was my time to try to understand why he was chosen for this. My pity parties didn’t bring him or my family down, it was just me and those were like little bouts of therapy in the dark, quiet hospital.

I practice what I learned back then still to this date. Taking an approach of what is the very next thing I can do has been the greatest (and hardest) lesson I’ve ever learned. It has led to an increase in my patience and a pragmatic approach to solving some of my largest personal and work problems.

There really is a learning lesson to be had in even the darkest of times and this was mine.

The Great Leveling

I have been unemployed and it sucks.
I have been broke and it sucks.
I have had zero prospects and it sucks.
I have had no money in my bank and it sucks.
I have not known where my next meal will come from and it sucks.

It lasted what felt like an eternity for me but it was probably no longer than 3 months. I remember spending my last $7 on food and thinking “that’s it, nothing left.” I remember having to call my mortgage company to ask for a deferral and not be able to afford the $75 change fee. There are many things that test you but nothing more than not being able to make a living to support your family.

I pulled out of this but many can’t. I pulled out because I had family and friends that helped. Many don’t. If there is one thing that I learned during this time it was to understand how close I was to financial ruin. Most of us have weeks, some of us have days. This reality is playing out today as COVID-19 is destroying the little bits of equity we’ve built in our lives in a matter of weeks. And it sucks.

Canada saw 1,000,000 newly unemployed workers in March due to the mass closures to stem the spread of the virus. A hard reality is that many of those businesses that shut down in early March may not have the financial ability to re-open once the country starts leaving their homes. April will be no better when it comes to unemployment and burden it will have on our system will be tremendous but necessary. How does a country keep its economy running without the engine that feeds it?

Lost in the shuffle here are those that were already in that position before all of this descended upon us. Those Canadians that were already living in subsidized housing, relied on the government or food banks to have access to food and whose job prospects were bleak to begin with. They have been voices that have been trying to break through but just weren’t being heard and now, with the masses out of work and screaming, their voices are being suppressed even more.

This economic shutdown is giving many Canadians a glimpse into the world that hundreds of thousands of the population live all the time. Housing and food insecurities abound but as we all go through our days, go ignored except by the small but mighty organizations that fight on the front lines on their behalf. Or we learn to ignore them. This time it’s hard to hide from it when the entire population will feel its impact. We will feel what it’s like to lose our jobs and to not have prospects. We will feel what it’s like to not be able to afford food or transportation. We’ve been forced to self-isolate to stem the spread but that is what it’s like for many today who have no money for social outings. Many of us will feel the sting of self doubt that creeps in when we feel useless or not in control of our lives anymore. This feeling compounds the longer you find yourself in this position. Sometimes it is completely debilitating and you get lost in it. This is that time we see how no Canadian should ever have to live yet, somehow, in our developed nation, people do. In every city food banks and community housing are a normal things. Accepted as part of society’s approach to solving a problem that shouldn’t exist in the land of opportunity and the free.

Maybe this will give us all the perspective we needed. Most of us balance our lives so close to the edge of financial success and failure that a couple of weeks of earn makes all the difference. Lose the earn and the impact could be catastrophic. My motivation was always that any decision that I made could have me living in my house or a cardboard box on the street corner. That has kept me motivated and miserly since I was a kid because I still feel I’m a moment away from this happening and now I have a wife and 2 children that rely on me to make it work.

Maybe this global shutdown will give us perspective and more empathy for those that have been challenged to find healthy and meaningful work and must rely on social assistance to live. Instead of ignoring their stead in life, I hope knowing that it only takes a few weeks to have millions of people fall into similar situations will give us a greater perspective. Even perhaps a deeper level of empathy and commitment to keep fighting these challenges long after the CoronaVirus has been abated.

Perhaps the impact of stopping the economy will show us the importance of making sure all of us are taken care of, supported and given an opportunity to move up and on with our lives. The loudest voices here may be the newly unemployed and their needs are real but let’s not forget those that were there before that have been asking for this kind of treatment for years. Our goal should be to live in a country that has closed all community housing and food banks because we don’t need them anymore. And to let every Canadian work, earn and live with dignity and self-confidence.

As for me, I’m still scouting street corners for my box mansion for 4. Motivation is motivation and that’s mine.

The End of Celebrity

In our old life celebrities brought with them intrigue, a glimpse to a better life, tossed with a little envy and a departure from day to day reality. It was fun while it lasted but this pandemic has shown their true colours — well, everyone’s true colours really. 

I’m as guilty as the next guy in my worship of celebrity. I’m a Bruce Springsteen fan, follow my favourite actors and athletes, I’ve lined up to get autographs, concert tickets and have had my photo taken with some of my heroes (well, not Springsteen…yet). But something has changed in the social media era. Celebrity has become an occupation not something that is a by-product of the thing they excel at. It is now a vocation.

Our heroes used to accomplish feats — top of the charts, on the big screen or on the field — and celebrity would follow as a result. They were known for hits and homeruns, goals, their legendary live performances. They did the reps. They played their local fairs. Even the Beatles played 10,000 hours at dive bars before they had a glimpse of success. They did their “time” and they earned our respect and admiration.

Celebrities were never business people either. Bill Gates was the least charismatic CEO when he started and ran Microsoft. Jeff Bezos is secretive and certainly, for most of his life at Amazon, stayed low key. The most gregarious of the admired leaders may have been Richard Branson who used stunts to draw attention to his brands. Even Mark Zuckerberg made being awkward an art! Most business leaders were relegated to business magazines and book indexes.

Not so anymore. Social media and the fact that everyone has a desire to have their voice heard (including, er, me…here…I guess) means we will hear those voices and in times like this we tend to look to them for guidance and reassurance. But why? They are celebrities and most are wholly and completely unqualified to give advice so they do what they’ve always done. Stand in front of a needing audience to use their celebrity to…beg?

In the old world, celebrities lent their name and their brand to help elevate causes. I didn’t see anything wrong with that but perhaps I was naive. We would see concerts raising money for the  drought-stricken Africa or the plight of the farmer and think “they get it. They are helping.” We stood up to cancer and appreciated the awareness that celebrity brought to the cause. We donated mightily and the celebrity had a hand in that simply by being there and I felt deep appreciation for their time to help such a noble cause.
Then the pandemic hit and those same celebrities, standing in front of me on my screen are doing the same thing yet I feel disgusted watching them.

What changed?

The folks asking me to dig into my wallet and donate for relief during this terrible economic time are the top 1% in terms of net worth and wealth on the PLANET and they are asking me to reach into my limited pool of funds, pull out dollars and donate? Everyone of the other 99% of the world’s population has been affected by what is going on or will be soon and they, the ultra rich, sitting in their 10,000 square foot homes with stocked pantries are asking US to give? How did this happen.

There are celebrities that have always used their power and coercion for good. Pink of all people has donated millions to causes throughout her career and has done so again here. There are more out there and we should focus our admiration on them because of their character. Bill Gates has made a life after Microsoft and will be remembered as the greatest philanthropist in human history and is doing it again around the pandemic. Jack Dorsey has donated $1 billion to this fight. These are the people that we should be looking to, not as celebrities, but as responsible humans doing what humans should be doing. Helping because they CAN help and SHOULD help.

I don’t need to see Elton John sitting safely in his mansion chatting with other celebrities about how sad the world is. I don’t think the Queen of England is suffering being in isolation in her castle. We don’t need to see Arod and JLo sunning by their pool telling us to stay home. Shut up and contribute back to society what we have all given you. Donate. Spend some of that money they we’ve all contributed to your castles and pools to help the people who need it the most. The world doesn’t need a tour of your pantries, the world needs you, the rich, to step up and help balance the imbalanced. Right now.

Free online concerts are great fun and they probably hit the artists with a little bit of nostalgia but we know we have to stay in place, we know we have to protect our loved ones, we know the world is wounded right now. What I don’t understand is why these same celebrities aren’t doing what is right by their fans. Contribute, donate, make a difference to the humans of earth by being humane. 

In the old world, celebrities could be vapid and just be celebrities as a profession. Coming into the new world, we are taking names and notes of those that contribute their names but not some notes and those which are showing their true character above all else.

Video: Why you should be where people love or where people hate – with Density founder Andrew Farah

There is a word that keeps cropping up when it comes to mobile anything – density. It is such a great word unless there isn’t any. There are 3 axis for mobile these days: Context, location and density. Context is easy to start with: Is it morning, noon or night? Is it raining, sunny or snowing? Location is getting easier (and VERY slowly getting more accurate): Standing in a stadium, restaurant or train station? New York, New Jersey or Philadelphia? Density is a little more challenging. It looks for the answer of how many people are nearby or in a shop or are using an app in a specific region. The problem is that to make key mobile marketing decisions you need accuracy on all three. Hence, the three axis of mobile.

Today’s guest is Andrew Farah, founder of the aptly-named Density. They install in/out counters in the doors of small and medium-sized businesses to do one thing: Count people entering and leaving the business. Seems simple enough but the challenges and the impact of what they are doing are many and wide-ranging.