Sunday, March 30, 2014

Just the Answers, Nothing More

A UML student doing a research project about downtown just e-mailed me a '10 questions about downtown' survey.  I pasted in my answers below.  With most of the questions, you'll be able to figure out the question through context...with the rest, it's whatever you want it to be...your very own Rohrshach test.

1. I moved to downtown Lowell in March of 2008.  When I entered a teacher ed program back in 2002, I was initially planning to go into urban education as a History or Social Studies teacher.  I knew I didn't want Boston or Cambridge -- I knew I wouldn't be able to afford those places, and I felt they were already saturated with people like me.  I explored all the mid-sized cities outside Boston -- Worcester, Providence, and Lowell in particular -- and found that Lowell had the best mix of affordability and "up-and-coming-ness" [okay, I admit that's not a word].  I decided to move to Lowell and make that my place to put a stake in the ground...but then decided to join the active-duty military.  I joined the Navy in 2003, served on active duty for 5 years, and then finally made it back to the city that made such a big impression on me initially.

2. I always felt that once you walk up Merrimack St (towards UML), as soon as you pass the library, something changes.  You're not downtown anymore.  So I'd say that's a boundary.  But I'd also call the baseball stadium and the arena part of 'downtown.'  With Market St, it's literally a case of 'the other side of the tracks.'  I'd say once you cross the trolley tracks towards Salem St, that whole part of Market St is the Acre.  Going up Central/Gorham, I'd say that Bishop Markham is the dividing point between downtown and Back Central.

3.  Yes.  The beauty of the city really took me in.  I absolutely love the library, and I love City Hall (the building more than the politics, though).  When my parents come to town, we always take a pic by Page's Clock Tower (no relation).

4.  I'd say 200 Market St, because that encompasses Canal Place I, II, and III.  

5.  The big myth is the idea of the 'downtown yuppie.'  Ask people who actually live downtown -- lots of seniors on fixed incomes around here.  There are some yuppies, and they probably mostly live in my building (Canal Place I). Technically I'm one of them (young, urban, professional).  But the real dirty secret around downtown is that there aren't ENOUGH people spending disposable income in the businesses downtown.  We need more people like that here, and no one needs to be pushed out in order for that to happen.

6.  Single biggest thing is that there's no *draw* to really bring folks into the downtown, entertainment-wise.  A movie theater, bowling alley, or game-based place could do that.  The performing arts stuff is way too highbrow and expensive.  We're never going to solve the foot traffic problem just by exhorting people to come downtown -- they need a reason to be there in the first place, and then they can grab dinner or whatever else from the shops.

7.  Great question.  I'd follow up to #6 by saying I hope there's an entrepreneur who sees the possibility for an entertainment draw that appeals to regular people.  By that time, I will be long gone (hoping to make it out to the Upper Highlands in 2015 or 2016, before my daughter starts kindergarten).

8.  Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association.  It's a great group but sometimes just a forum for people to complain about noisy bars.  I'd say there's no neighborhood school that residents unify around; in fact, a lot of people don't refer to downtown as a 'neighborhood' -- they say 'downtown AND the neighborhoods.'  

9.  Kathleen Marcin -- no longer the LDNA leader but she still carries the informal respect/clout both inside and outside of the neighborhood.  Also, Franky Descoteaux.  A lot of downtowners were proud to have a downtowner city councilor and many admire her for being an entrepreneur. 

10. Brew'd Awakenings.  Pretty central spot for many downtown residents and appeals to lots of different people for different reasons.  Definitely the sort of place that downtowners would expect to bump into one another -- moreso than even a sitdown place like the Club Diner.  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hating the Haters? Get Over Yourself

The leader of a notorious hate group passed away today, or yesterday, or sometime in between.

I'm not saying his name here, and I'm not naming his group.

What I will say, though, is that not a single person I know supports his brand of hate.

And I know a lot of people, from a lot of walks of life.

So if you oppose this guy, you're not being courageous, or brave, or profound; in fact, you're being just as quotidian as everyone else I know, myself included.

Find some issue that you can take out and paddle with, against the tide.  Then, find some reflective surfaces so you can stop, and admire.

But just opposing something that 99+% of society opposes does NOT make you worthy of that.

Key Indicators

Something happened to me yesterday that just about never happens -- I was supposed to be somewhere, and I wasn't there. By now, I've already been through all the stages...and I'm comfortable enough about what happened to be able to write about it here. I apologized to the person that I stood up -- while being careful not to overdo it -- and the screw-up has basically been contained.

Business Lesson #1: There's no such thing as error-free baseball, so don't try to play it. When errors DO happen, stay classy, take ownership, dust yourself off, and move on.

A few hours later, one of the students I tutor sent me an e-mail canceling a session for tomorrow due to a bad cold she was experiencing. I shot back a quick "no prob, get well soon" e-mail, but didn't mention in my note that I had no clue that we were slated to meet in the first place! Twice in one day is no coincidence. Things will slow down quite a bit after May 15, when I finish school (for REAL this time).

One thing I want to be a bit more thoughtful about when the post-May 15 era arrives is how to more intelligently account for the way I spend my time to earn money. Here are 8 quick thoughts that speak to that:

1. I am a bootstrapping entrepreneur. ('Bootstrapping' gets defined different ways, but to me it just means 'no outside equity financing').

2. I have de-risked the process by taking on side jobs that bring me over my monthly 'hurdle' rate.

3. This has been so effective that even after graduation -- and even after the loan payments kick in -- I will be able to plow most of the revenue from the business back into the business itself.

4. Some means of revenue generation are far better than others...and the per-hour wage associated with each can be very misleading.

5. Hours that "stack" are worth significantly more than hours that don't. For instance, my tutoring job pays 5x the hourly wage of being an Army Reservist...but if I had to give up one position, it'd be the tutoring, hands down. The Army wage is easier to account for (it's quite predictable), and the consecutive hours swallow up the overhead 'costs' associated with travel and preparation.

6. Making 80 bucks an hour to teach Calculus isn't really what it sounds like. If there's a travel hour on each end, 4 prep hours per session (remember, I was never a true Math guy), and then awkward time gaps built in due to the unusual scheduling, that dollar figure starts to shrink, quickly.

7. Adjuncting is the best gig that I have going...it's 3 hours in a shot, I don't have to do a ton of grading, and the prep time will amortize nicely with each subsequent course iteration. If I can score a couple more simultaneous gigs in this field, I would be able to clear my entire hurdle w/this alone.

8. Cost accounting is incredibly tricky and subjective (I'm actually taking an entire course on the subject right now, and it's a doozy). Revenue accounting gets funky, too.

Have I crossed the line into "Dear Diary" territory here? Maybe. But hopefully some of these entries can be useful someday to some other bootstrapper trying to figure this stuff out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sharking Garage

I get it.

The parking garage is a shared space.

And I get it.

I live in a city, by choice.  Sometimes that means sharing tiny spaces with others, and sometimes it even means other things.

Sometimes it means I'm picking up my niece and nephew at school and there's a parent there waiting next to me and he has a teardrop tattooed underneath his eye, and it bothers me.  That might not happen in [insert name of tony suburb] but I will choose to love this place, not leave it.

But anyway, back to the parking garage.

Having my own car, with a $48/mo spot at the Roy, means dealing with the all-too-common phenomenon of 'sharking' -- something anyone who has parked in a public garage, or even at a mall during holiday season, is well aware.

I realize that there's a reason for it.  Someone pulls in, they need a spot, they see a guy walking towards a car...and it all makes sense.

But at the Roy Garage, there's almost NEVER a vacancy problem.  Fine, maybe the first floor spaces fill up midday, but that still leaves a half-empty [insert name of any other level].

And besides the instinctual weirdness of feeling like someone is driving alongside you at 3 mph, stopping and starting in a way that mirrors your moves, there's another problem:  Maybe I'm just going to my car to get something. 

So if you're sharking me, is there some kind of universal code I can relay back to you to let you know "You are about to be very disappointed?"

If I can't, is it fair when you throw your hands up in exasperation, honk your horn, and speed away when you realize I was just trekking out to the vic in order to pick up my copy of "Digital Crossroads: American Telecommunications Policy in the Internet Age?"

Because I can assure you, there's a million other spaces around, and there was nothing special about mine.

It almost makes me want to "chum the waters" sometime by walking laps through the Roy for PT while dangling a set of car keys and bopping my head around like I'm lost.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March Madness at the ICC

* Full Disclosure: I am an enthusiastic supporter of Charlie Baker, and I think he'll be a great Governor.  I will write more about this later, but Baker is absolutely the genuine article...and more and more people across Mass. are figuring this out, all the time.

Yesterday I got to breathe the rarefied air of Citizens' Media Group (a shadowy cast of rogues if there ever was one) while attending the City Manager's St. Patrick's Day Breakfast.

And speaking of City Managers, Acting CM Mike Geary was my bracket-buster yesterday.  He was sharp on his toes, he was personable, he was funny, and he threw jabs in real-time, referencing material from the event itself (as opposed to the scripted, stilted stuff).  He had several memorable lines, including his 'tony suburb' reference that degenerated into 'tiny sunburn' after several run-throughs, his mid-game nap near the podium, and his high-octane sticker-slapping on the city banner.  I had Mike as a 10th seed in the Midwest Regional making an exit in the round of 32, but his performance yesterday was Elite Eight-worthy, for sure.

Eileen Donoghue was an okay emcee, but slung a steady round of by-the-book jokes that simply substituted in the names of present company as the protagonists.  These are the sort of jokes that at best draw polite laughter (i.e. "Tom said he was really hungry, so he asked Espresso to cut it into 16 slices rather than 8" or "It turned out that the urine sample was Bill's, but the handwriting in the snow was Hillary's"). Taking an old bank robbery joke and just substituting in "George Ramirez" and "Kevin Murphy" is kind of like sliding into the Sweet Sixteen as a high seed and then petering out against a hungrier squad from a mid-major conference.

Mayor Rodney Elliott bombed.  His timing wasn't hot, his Photoshop wasn't inspired, and he exuded the charisma of a passport clerk in New Delhi.  His presentation was about as memorable as an 8-seed falling to a 9 in East Rutherford -- not that upsetting, and easy to forget.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, however, impressed the holy heck out of me for the second straight year.  She threw some on-the-spot Molotov Cocktails towards Mayor Murphy last year, and this year she opened with a Mike Scott screwball about how she didn't understand Elliott's inside Lowell humor, and apparently no one in the crowd did, either.  She kept at it with the jokes about the lack of laughter in the crowd, and demonstrated a general ease with the crowd that bodes well for her statewide this year.  Final Four material here.

Steve Grossman, however, flamed out almost as fast the Georgetown squad that nearly fell to Pete Carrill's Tigers in the Round of 64.  Grossman started out in way-too-serious mode with a panegyric about the delegation that led some people at the CMG table to start making sophomoric jokes about Jergens and kleenex.  He then fumbled his way though a Jesus-and-a-guy-named-Finkelstein joke with a punchline of "Lord and Taylor."  Much like an early favorite that pulls its head out of its posterior following an inspirational timeout speech, Grossman ALMOST redeemed himself with a "Charlie on the MTA" routine that coulda shoulda woulda been a poke at Baker with some new lyrics.  A couple Big Dig jokes, some jabs towards Mr. Weld, and redemption was Grossman's to have.  BUT he snatched defeat from the jaws of, well, defeat by just awkwardly singing all of Charlie on the MTA.  This is a guy whose only chance at a Regional Final will be a well-timed site visit to StubHub.

Middlesex DA Marian Ryan looked ready to take the Admiral Stockdale Award as she sat on stage. While she didn't score any funny points (though I think I caught myself chuckling at some kind of 'Reilly & Leone' joke), she was genuine and she was brief.  Let's call her a 5 seed beating a 12 and then petering out, and call it good from there.

Sheriff Peter Koutoujian started about as strong as Duke against the play-in winner at a fieldhouse in the Southeast, but screeched to an early halt following a history lesson about the Irish Potato Famine Great Starvation.  After reminding us of his Irishness, he had a Khruschev's-shoe-on-the-table moment when he reminded us that there wasn't a shortage of food on the Emerald Isle in the mid-1900s, but it was the British colonialists' unwillingness to share said bounty that caused the problem that led so many of our grandparents' grandparents to come this way.  It was sort of a band-stopped-playing-and-everyone-stopped-dancing sort of moment.

Former Swampscott Selectman Charlie Baker followed up strong.  First, he opened up with a huge bear hug for Mike Geary following the whole 'tony suburb' bit (a lead-in to why it's good that 'Charlie' goes by 'Charlie').  He then came in with a crack about the level of diversity in the room (note: self-effacing humor always goes a long way with me, but it has to be genuine in order to work...this was).  He got a bit too serious during a quick detour following an 'Inside of 128/Outside of 128' economy distinction, but then had a nice bit about working for Bill Weld and trying to understand how the guy squeezed governing in between squash games, social events, and more social events.  He also had some really classy words for Paul Cellucci, noting that Paul would be glad to see the role of prominent women on the stage.  (Oh, I'll also say here that there were several nice Paul Sheehy/Tom McKay references yesterday).  Charlie is ready to win 6 straight games and cut the nets down in the Corner Office.

Tom Golden was the Delegation's only saving grace.  First, just from a charisma/stage presence point of view, Tipa scores points right off the bat with an infectious smile, a warm tone, and some belly laughs that make you think, "I want a sip of whatever's in that guy's coffee."  He did the PowerPoint/Photoshop stuff that was the day's theme, and the most memorable shot he had was the British Royal family (Rourke as the baby and Rita as the Queen stood out the best).  He had a Mayoral portrait joke (there were a few yesterday), and he kept it relatively short.  Only Sweet 16 rep from among the Delegation here.

Keeping it relatively short is about as much as I can say about Kevin Murphy or David Nangle.  Nangle had one nice impromptu moment (he tore down the Mike Geary sticker after Geary made a reference to Nangle 'flooding the zone' with challengers to water down a primary opponent), and he cracked at himself with a Seabrook, NH line (again, self-effacing really works when it's authentic).  Murphy had some badly-done Photoshopped images, which seemed unoriginal (mostly due to the batting order, though).

Then in came Bernie Lynch as the sleeper pick. From the backcourt, he called some isolation plays...he splashed a trey in Jim Campanini's eye and ran down the court with his arm fully extended.  With a weather joke that tied Elliott's mayoralty with climate change in hell, Bernie scored again on a finger roll, untouched. He threw a final salute toward the delegation following a baseline jumper, and then ambled toward the bench during a change of possession so that Mike McDonald could get on the court.

Mike, by the way, was funnier than everyone else put together.

And then it was time to go on a 28-hour work binge.

Thankfully, this week is SIP (Sloan Innovation Period) which means I'm captive in a classroom that I can't escape (but which has afforded me the opportunity to write this summary)...So in the spirit of Thanks Patrick's Day, thank you for reading, as always.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Minute Clinic Experience

Yesterday morning, I woke up with one eye basically encrusted (is that a word?) shut.  It was very bloodshot the whole day.

Today, that eye was slightly encrusted but my OTHER eye was twice as difficult to open as the first one had been yesterday.

It seemed that this was some viral conjunctivitis, and coupled with some other mild symptoms, I didn't know if it was *just* pink eye, or if I might also have strep throat.

Enter the Minute Clinic.

I drove down 38 to the CVS at 1900 Main.  I signed in at a kiosk and was told I had an hour-long wait. No big deal -- I had a few books in the car, and I sort of set up shop at a chair inside CVS while I waited.

Slightly less than an hour later, the Nurse Practitioner called me in.  She did a strep culture, which came back negative six minutes later.  She took my temperature (fine, no fever) and checked other vitals.  She looked at my eyes and was able to say, without any doubt, that it was a case of conjunctivitis.  She wrote a prescription for Cipro eye drops (two drops every two hours, per eye, for two days, and two drops every four hours afterwards), which she submitted electronically to a CVS in Lowell (...and was ready by the time I got there).

Everything was very easy.  I gave her my insurance info, and she wasn't 100% sure if I would've needed a referral to avoid a bill (regardless, I did not pay anything on the spot).

Either way, I'm on the way to solving the problem, and I avoided the hassle of scheduling a visit with a primary or of spending half the day (or longer) waiting in an ER.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Value of an Hour: Reductio Ad Absurdium

I'm working out of the Sandbox collaborative space at Wannalancit this month.  This experience presents a lot of natural networking opportunities, and it has allowed me to meet many of the members of the Winter Accelerator class.

One member of the class is a budding commercial filmmaker who is charging a (very) low fee to clients as he gains his footing, grows his network, gets established, etc.  When I heard the fee, I said to him, "Let me guess -- you're constantly hearing 'charge more' from everyone around you."

When he confirmed that, I said, "Don't listen to people who say your price signals a lack of confidence in yourself.  In fact, the reality may be the complete opposite -- maybe you're so confident in yourself that you are willing to start w/this low fee because you know you're good.  You'll do what you have to do to get started, and once your value is clear, you'll be able to command a better fee."

One thing I'm sure he contends with is the whole "What's an hour of your time really worth?" question.  I've already done a few blog entries on that particular question -- I think it's a fascinating one that most people probably never stop to fully dissect.  While it's important to bear the question in mind, it's also important not to get too carried away with it.

Rather than think in terms of the per-value worth of everything I do, I frame a lot of my work in terms of what I need to make each month. There is a bar I need to clear, and there are five separate means by which I clear it (and I realize there's an uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow quality to that, but I also realize that one person who works one 100-hour-a-week job is actually outworking someone with 5 part-time jobs with fewer total hours, so I think the whole 'here's how many jobs I work' thing is often overdone).

One thing I do to help clear the bar is tutoring.  Today, for instance, I'll tutor a high school kid who goes to Lincoln-Sudbury for the SAT before driving to BU to tutor an undergrad taking Introductory Calculus.  In theory, I'll make good money for it (3 total hours of work, billing at 50/per).  However, more detailed accounting makes that per-hour figure far less sexy.  Factor in the driving time, mileage costs, and the downtime (for instance, if I'm 10 minutes early, that's not billed time) and suddenly the per-hour figure falls precipitously. Now, take out the prep time, which was considerable for the second student (it took me a few hours w/Khan Academy, some old textbooks, and some sample tests I found online to get back into Gameday Shape for Calculus).  Now that $50 per hour has fallen to something barely better than minimum wage (although, in fairness, the *cost* of that time should be amortized across several sessions, as I'll have the student all semester).

So should that suggest that I reconsider that line of work?

If anything, maybe it means I should try to steer students towards Skype, which is amazingly more efficient than schlepping around from Lowell to Sudbury to Kenmore and back before the Super Bowl.

But if it means dropping this line of work (which I enjoy doing, by the way) how do I snap my fingers and replace the 2k+/month I'm now making for tutoring?

I'm starting to see more and more money coming across the table w/my start-up related work.  But y'know what?  If you take the paychecks I've been getting, and start adding travel time, travel expense, and prep time into the denominator, that money starts to look less impressive, too.

Same for the Reserves.  A drill weekend is great, but prep time + travel + duty day time cuts into the hourly sum quite a bit.  So maybe that needs to go, too.

Ditto for teaching CS 101.  I get a nice monthly paycheck, but the prep work is intense (mostly b/c it's a first go-around), it's a six-hour commitment when I include travel on top of the three teaching hours, and there are e-mails to answer, papers to grade, homeworks to review, etc.  So if I really thought I was such hot stuff that I couldn't work for less than $50/hr, I'd have to drop that too, right?

Dividend investing requires minimal time, and comes out better month-to-month (compounding has a funny way of doing that).  So by a strict application of time-to-value, that's the only thing I should keep.  Never mind the fact that it doesn't even come close to paying my most major two bills (mortgage and day care).

Of course, I'm being facetious about whether I'd drop ANY of those things.  For the short- and even medium-term, I'll happily keep them all, thank you very much.

I will gladly accept, and even embrace, the fact that I'm juggling several balls to make it all work.  After all, it's my own choosing -- I forsook the more standard finance/consulting MBA path to pursue an entrepreneurial vision that is slowly but surely gaining traction all the time.

As long as I can get enough time each day for sleep/exercise to stay healthy, and am able to spend some weeknights and weekend days w/family, I'll do whatever else I have to in order to make sure I can keep my neck and ears fully above the waterline while I kick to stay afloat.

The bigger picture is that I'm creating value in ways that's going to pay dividends (figurative or literal) down the road.  Narrowly focusing on the short-term, immediate return on each hour of time seems like a good way to stay idle...and broke.