Thursday, March 28, 2013

Our City is Better Than This...

I just looked up the definition of "palace coup" online.  Here's what I got:  
"Sudden overthrow, often violent, of an existing government by a group of conspirators. Coups are most common in countries with unstable governments and in countries with little experience of successful democracy. Their success depends on surprise and speed. Coups rarely alter a nation's fundamental social and economic policies or significantly redistribute power." 
When I think about the timing of the recent move  by some Council members to censure, condemn, or take a no-confidence vote in our Mayor, I instantly think of places like Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, and late-1970s Iran.


Because if you look at the pattern of coup d'etats around the world  -- particularly in countries that have frequent coup d'etats -- they disproportionately happen when the leader's back is turned.  In "low trust" societies, that's how a lot of things work.

As Francis Fukuyama says in the book linked here, trust is the commodity that enables great societies to prosper.  Our country, by the way, is so successful in large part because we are a "high trust" society.  [If you think that sounded jingoistic, I would advise you to spend six or more consecutive weeks in another country.  Come back and we'll talk].

Choosing a moment in which our Mayor is on paternity leave -- by the side of his wife, who is preparing to give birth to their first child -- to stir up plans and schemes of regime change (since tamped down by those who have pointed out the pesky limitations of Plan E and the Charter) shows no class.

It is the most visible -- but by no means the first -- time that someone has found fault with our Mayor and chosen to use a public forum, rather than a simple, "behind the woodshed" course correction, in order to make their point.  That tells me everything I need to know about where politics and principles stand on those peoples' priority lists.

Outwardly, it also reflects badly on our city, which has pulled ahead of its Gateway City peers in so many respects in recent years.  How strong is the foundation of that success, though?  Brockton has made amazing educational strides in that same period, and it's equidistant from Boston.  Could it somehow steal away the next cohort group of young professionals priced out of Boston proper?

Some did not vote for our Mayor, either in the Council election or in the Mayoral election.  The people of the city would be able to speak biennially about his performance anyway, but he has already stated his intention not to run again.  The democratic process that makes him accountable to these "people" whose collective name keeps being invoked is not broken.  The process put him into City Hall, and another process put him at the podium.  Rest assured, come January there will be a new face running the meetings as well as at least one new face seated at a desk.

That is process enough.  That is the day that the people ranting and raving about the placement of a statue will "have theirs."

In the meantime, let's leave the tactics reminiscent of banana republics, tinpot dictatorships, and two-bit despots to the places that many of us LEFT in order to come live in this country and this city.

Forget what we deserve.  We ARE better than that.  Let's show it.  

WHY Entrepreneurship is Hard, Part Deux

Again, nothing new or original about someone saying entrepreneurship is hard.  In fact, given the repetition there from my last post, I guess it's not even original to say it's not original.  Or something like that.

Anyway, the main theme of my last post was that when EVERY task is an implied task, it's very easy to lose focus.  It's very easy and very tempting to *just* do the things you like.  In fact, absent some kind of outside discipline (i.e. a Board, an Advisory Team, a co-founder, or a strong conscience), the path of least resistance is going to beat the path of greatest effectiveness.

For all those reasons, if someone tells you he or she is forming a start-up, and the only follow-up reason offered is the desire to "be my own boss," grip your wallet a bit tighter.

And now on to reason #2:  You're either a visionary or a nut, but no one really knows, including you.

Let's say it was the mid-1990s, and a guy approaches you saying, "I'm going to pack all my earthly belongings into the trunk of my car, drive to Seattle, and then set up an operation there to sell books online."

What do you think you would've said back?  I'm not judging in any case, and there's no way you could've known that guy would go on to set up one of the largest, most powerful online brands (that sells a heckuva lot more than books, btw) by 2013.

But any good entrepreneur is frequently soliciting advice.  Much of this winds up contradicting itself.   Use a freemium model.  Don't use a freemium model.  Try direct mail.  Don't use direct mail, it's a waste.  Go right to clients.  No, work through intermediaries.  Use the media.  Don't e-mail reporters until you're more established.  And so on, and so on.  Meanwhile, you hear from some people who think you're sitting on a pile of gold, others who tell you "don't quit your day job" and then the vast middle group of people, who may listen politely but don't really care.  (Oh, and I would argue that no one without real 'skin in the game' truly does everything needs to be put through that filter, too).

If you ignore everything you hear, you're pigheaded (and will probably fail).  But if you listen to everything, you'll be like the proverbial Buridan's Ass -- the donkey who was both hungry and thirsty, and equidistant from a water source and a food source.  Wracked by indecision for days -- was he more hungry, or more thirsty? -- the donkey died of both hunger and thirst simultaneously.

The (sort of) simple answer to all this can be found in the feedback loop you get from customers.  If they're *buying* your product and service, something is working; if they're not, it ain't.  So stop *selling* to people who aren't even prospects or leads anyway, and spend more time with your leads and prospects.

And have a team.  There was a famous blog article written a few years ago titled, "18 Reasons Why Start-Ups Fail."  Reason #1?  Solo founder.  There are many things that factor into this, but I just want to quickly put that through the prism of the two reasons listed above -- for a solo founder, it's just that much easier to fall into the trap of 'comfortable.'  Kind of like cheating just a little bit at solitaire, it's mighty tempting.  And as to the second reason, sometimes one plus one equals far more than two -- a quick sanity check to a bad idea, or encouragement for a good one, can only come from someone with the right perspective, and enough of a stake to care.

Friday, March 22, 2013

WHY Entrepreneurship is Hard

There's nothing new or original about saying "entrepreneurship is hard."  In fact, that's a pretty consistently-heard theme that comes from anyone who has either taken said plunge, known anyone who's taken the plunge, or even thought and long and hard about the prospect.

Let me offer up a reason WHY that's the case, though, along with an implication about why the statistics for start-ups look so daunting.

Before I do, though, I want you to think back to any experience you've ever had as a manager.  Whether it was a classic corporate situation, whether it was a Platoon Leader/Platoon Sergeant position, or whether it was your time as a volunteer Little League Coach, I want to know this -- What frustrated you the most about the experience?

Consistently, many people answer that question by saying that they get frustrated by employees or subordinates who can't understand implied tasks.  In other words, they more or less do what you say, but then they stop.  And they don't start back up again until you give another explicit instruction.  Now, your time is being taken away from what you WANTED to do (steer the ship, chart the course, etc.) towards what you MUST do (lots of hand-holding, specific tasking, etc.)  The employees you loved the most were the ones who could get an intentionally vague directive (i.e. figure out how to improve sales in the Kerblakistan region) and then just run with it.  They knew their left-and-right limits, you trusted them, and they did great things when you set them free.  You wondered why more people couldn't be just like them.  

Well, what percentage of your people were like that?  20 percent?  10 percent?  5 percent?  My guess is that it hovers somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, regardless of where you are.  The skills I'm talking about (hustle, combined with an innate ability to understand what needs to happen to achieve success) don't correlate with IQ, background, education level, etc.  If I could offer a more technical explanation, I could probably be an instant billionaire...but I can't, so I am hoping some people just have it will suffice.

Well anyway, back to my original paragraph, and the purpose of the entry:  I would posit that the only people who can become successful entrepreneurs are those who fall into the aforementioned group.  Admittedly, most entrepreneurs self-select as already being self-starters, so the percentage of successes is much higher than the percentage of the people described above (from the general population).

Why?  Because running a start-up (particularly one with a single founder group or a very small founder group) means that no one is telling you what to do.  

If people found businesses solely because they want to be "be their own boss" and aren't at least a little bit stressed about whether they'll be able to manage their time with purpose and some structure, then I would put all my chips against them.  (Call it the "Gift of Fear"...any who lack it are doomed).

But if you're betting on successes, you need to START with that group of employees you remember who have that knack for figuring it out and getting it done...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hearing the Hum

Last Friday, I attended the St. Patrick's Day Breakfast at the UML Inn & Conference Center.  

It included the usual run of stale political jokes (the ones that get told each year with only the names and sometimes the places changed up), and even a couple cases where people didn't modify their stuff in response to identical lines that had just been delivered by a previous speaker.  Regardless, it was entertaining, it was well worth the time, and the money raised went a good cause.  

I thought Martha Coakley was surprisingly witty and charming.  Her statewide reputation from 2010 would suggest otherwise, but she had some great off-the-cuff jabs -- she threw one right back at Mayor Murphy for making a "shaking hands in the cold" reference, she had a couple other original zingers (one of which was repeated verbatim by one of our State Reps. several minutes later), and most of all her demeanor was relaxed and casual -- perfect for the occasion.  

Dan Winslow held his own.  Maybe this springs in part from the benefit of being the guy with nothing to lose, but he commanded a great presence from the podium without a hint of awkward.  The laughs were genuine -- not the sort of polite groans that sometimes come after St. Patrick's Day gag lines.

Tom Golden did great on the originality/visual humor scale once again.  Last year, it was the movie posters...this year, commercials.  Either way, a break from the standard boilerplate of recycled jokes and insincere self-deprecation.  

Initially, Gerry Leone led off with an old Tip O'Neill anecdote about (not) being introduced at sporting events, which sort of set me into a "here it comes again" mindset.  However, he then veered into more interesting territory.  He talked a bit about his decision to leave his current post, about his decision to run in the first place, and about loyalty.  In true "dance with the one that brung ya" style, he thanked his closest aides and supporters, emphasizing that anyone can say they're "with you" after the primary.  The people who really count are the ones who side with you before you've got all the momentum at your back.  He opened up about he saw the opportunity to run for the position, even though he lived outside of Middlesex County at the time and was seen (at best) as a dark horse.  He talked about how he saw Lowell as his *operational base* (my words there) even though it wasn't clear to some why that would make sense.  I'm badly paraphrasing and truncating here (hey, it's been nearly a week) but he wrapped up by saying that he had run his course w/public office and would soon be headed to the private sector to stay.  

Anyway, I liked it because I admire anyone who is enough of a visionary to identify the right opportunities, know when to jump, and then have the even-more-impressive skill to identify their departure point.  This isn't something that can be found in any manual, or offered from any consultant...instead, it's an instinctual trait that many highly successful people seem to have.  My friend Jack Mitchell sometimes talks about a spiritual force called "The Hum of the Universe."  I don't want to bastardize that term from its real meaning, so I'll modify it here to call this skill "The Hum of the Street."  

The world is constantly offering you feedback.  In terms of personal life, professional life, family life, etc. the clues telling you which way to twist and turn to take advantage of opportunities are there provided you're willing to listen.  Some people are tone-deaf, so they either don't see opportunities right in front of them, insist on seeing or hearing feedback that really isn't there, or don't know when the time is right to exit stage left (whether that's a retired city councilor begging for mic time at a public event, or whether it's the kid who graduated last June still hanging out in your high school parking lot talking to girls, you know it when you see it).  

Whatever Gerry Leone he saw, it wasn't obvious to everyone around him (and in comes the tautology -- if it were obvious, then it wouldn't be special).  Those very same Spidey Senses pointed to the exit doors in 2013, and I'm not going to doubt them.  

I credit Mayor Murphy with a lot of the same.  He identified an opportunity to run for the Council.  He made a big splash as a first-termer, and saw an opportunity develop to lead the city in a completely different way in his next term.  Everything always seems obvious with hindsight, but who would have predicted that back in 2007?   At some point during the process, he  decided on his own terms that he was ready for a new chapter in his life and career -- maybe with an eye toward other impactful opportunities, and maybe with frustration towards the pomposity and self-importance he made fun of in his speech on Friday.  He heard the hum in 2009 when he ran, he heard it after the 2011 election when the Mayoral race began shaping up, and he heard it when he made the call to pull chalks.  

All this stuff may seem inscrutable to anyone other than the person himself or herself, and in a way that's the whole point.  Why did Ted Williams hit .388 one year, and then .328 the next year, only to be completely gone from baseball just two seasons later?  

That's not too different from asking when an undefeated DA, or an undefeated CC, would pick up the needle and move to a new groove...while it may be ours to speculate, it's not ours to know.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dude, It's Not About You

Teufel Hunde, Get Over Thyself!  

This morning, as I was mindlessly scrolling my Facebook news feed somewhere between West Medford and North Station, I learned about the story of Mac Hamlin, a high-school senior who is refusing to participate in his school's graduation ceremony "on principle."

What's the principle?

Well, it's because the principal won't let him wear his Marine dress blues in the ceremony (he graduated a semester early and is on track to complete boot camp prior to graduation).

This young man has a lot to learn.

In general, I try to steer away from phrases like "he gets it" or "he doesn't get it" because, much like "common sense," they are inherently problematic -- they're calibrated to the speaker's sense of whatever "it" should be.  The use of such phrases, therefore, often exhibits an ironic lack of self-awareness on the part of the speaker.

But for this would-be Marine, I'm willing to make a rare exception:  he just doesn't *get it.* 

The entire purpose of making an entire high school class wear a UNIFORM consisting of a cap and gown is precisely what the term suggests -- they are dressed identically, on purpose.  It's the same reason the military wears uniforms to work, and obeys uniform grooming's about subsuming oneself to something larger, not about individual expression.

Now, if the question were about prom, or some other event in which individual forms of dress were expressed, then of course he ought to be able to rock the blues.  But the principal in this school is absolutely, 100% right.  Anyone who has worn the country's uniform ought to know this, and I suspect the people yelling the loudest about this -- esp. the ones spewing the vitriol towards this school and principal -- have not.

If he keeps this circus going with childish comments about not participating, I will start to wonder whether someone in his chain of command will put him in his proper place.

** Just as an unrelated aside, completely separate from this story, I will mention that before joining the military, I used to always wonder why people are sometimes decked out in dress uniforms on seemingly random occasions.  I have since learned there is really no set rule for this.  One generality with weddings is this:  If the bride, groom, or wedding party specifically ask a military guest to wear a dress uniform, then he or she should do so.  Otherwise, it is considered bad form (for the reasons stated in this post).  As a for instance, I got married *slick* but asked military friends to wear their dress uniforms.  I have only once worn a dress uniform to a wedding, and it was because the groom's father asked me to (groom was a USMC Sergeant).  

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cool New Video from Brand Lowell

The next time someone asks me, "What is it about that place that you love so much?" I will show them this:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why I'm Not Nervous About Being Nervous...

I'm giving a presentation tonight.

I've never been to the venue before, and I don't know how large the audience will be.  I don't know how receptive they'll be, either, and I'm not entirely sure how long it will go.

Add the whole thing up, and at H-7 (that's H-Hour, minus 7), I'm starting to get that oh-so-slight-but-present butterfly feeling in the stomach.  Just like the one I got before our traveling team basketball games in eighth grade.  Or just like before giving the briefs to the brass down at the waterfront in New London, or Groton, or wherever it was.

But, to paraphrase the title of this post, I'm not worried about being worried.  I'm self-aware of it, but I'm also aware that Jim Kelly used to puke his guts out in the locker room before every Bills game. 

All Super Bowl and "missing rings" jokes aside, Kelly was one of the all-time greats.  And you know why he was puking in Buffalo?  Because he cared.  I don't know this, but I'll bet dollars-to-donuts that the Bills' 2nd- and 3rd-string QBs WEREN'T going through that same inner turmoil...not because of their supposed "steely composition" but because they frankly had less on the line.

And something that's been studied and re-studied time and again among psychologists who study athletes and students is that people who perform the best are just a bit "nervous in the service" just prior to the starting gun.

People who are TOO much a bundle of nerves tend to choke and not perform.  But guess what?  For everyone out there who brags about he's the "Iceman" at crunchtime, that's not ideal, either.  People who express no signs of nervousness (either through their statements or their physiological responses) don't rate the highest performances, either.

Someone who doesn't get at least a little bit psyched up probably isn't personally invested in whatever's going on.  This is something I wish I had known back when I used to work with someone who was very quick to brag about his coolness (in contrast to my lack thereof) but, I later realized, didn't really care about what we were doing.

It's like, no sh!t that guy's palms were bone dry just before "The Big One" because he wasn't the one under the klieg lights.  (Of course, everyone becomes wittier AFTER the fact, and I wish I had the wherewithal to point this out at the time).

So, yes, there are some butterflies-a-swirling.  But I've been to this rodeo before -- in fact, many, many times.  As soon as the first couple slides are clicked through, and I enter what Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes called "The Zone" back in their early-1990s basketball classic, all will be well.

And I'm not sure I could have one without the other.