Has Your Fail Already Begun?

Has Your Fail Already Begun?

The Inter-Webbies are chock-full of advice on business leadership, entrepreneurship and management, not to mention vast numbers of books, coaches, consultants, the lists go on — it’s all over the place.

Much of the wisdom is the same and centers around motivation, communication and decision-making. The root of an unsuccessful business, in all but the most outlying of edge cases, is poor implementation (this is “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer”, as one of my profs used to love to say).

Poor implementation can mean a lot of things, but the root of the root is, in my experience, dishonesty with oneself. In other words, failure begins when you lie to yourself.

The ways in which human beings lie to themselves are many, well beyond running a company into much more profound emotional, psychological and spiritual areas. Startups are breeding grounds for self-deception but it happens in all businesses, small and large, new and old, lean and fat.

The most critical fails are often tactical — the day-to-day.

The biggest lies are when Managers think they know the tactical details of their businesses better than the Makers who are “on the ground” doing the real work.

The biggest lie of all is that Manager cannot trust Maker — cannot trust what Maker does, what Maker says, what Maker believes. Over and over, managers move mountains of time and money to find the right talent only to squander the investment by not trusting that talent.

If you’re a manager and you’re not trusting your people, your Fail has already begun. Start trusting them to do the jobs for which you hired them — no matter how right you think you are — and you have at least a fighting chance. Otherwise cut them loose — immediately.

The Flaw

The Flaw

Just caught The Flaw on Netflix, and it’s well worth the watch. Director David Sington pulled together an impressive panel of economists and historians (including Robert Shiller and Joseph Stiglitz — my favorite was Louis Hyman).

The film borrows its title from Alan Greenspan’s 2008 congressional testimony but doesn’t devote a ton of screen time to the video of that testimony. Instead the film focuses on its luminaries’ analysis and opinions, who each have their own take on “The Flaw”. One thing everyone seemed to agree on was the asset-if-ication of real estate, exploited by market forces in unprecedented fashion.

I was fascinated by the film’s liberal use of clips from a cartoon developed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1954. It’s Everybody’s Business, in addition to being a great example of Cold War capitalist propaganda, is stunningly good design. There’s a video game in that film somewhere…

In a Hit-Driven Business, You’re Only as Good as Your Last Hit

I was in South Carolina recently with a client and we got into a discussion about our first jobs and what we learned. I grew up on a farm in Western Kentucky so I had plenty of jobs from an early age. But I consider my first real gig to be a small sign-painting business in high school. It started when I got a shot at designing and painting the facade for the first video arcade in town, “Time Out”. The project required me to work with highly-opinionated people, manage others and make a tight deadline no matter what.

Once I’d done the main design work (the logo in the photo) and was ready to begin the paint job itself, I discovered almost immediately that I was in over my head — I had less than a week to complete the work (you can’t see it in the picture but there was about a 40 ft. wide x 15 ft. tall wall that had to be hand-painted with over a dozen colors according to my meticulously drafted proposal) and be ready for the weekend grand opening. I quickly acquired a co-founder — my friend Rick who I’d known since first grade — who was happy to join up. Rick was trustworthy, artistic and smart. We finished the job ahead of schedule.

The experience was a perfect fit with my growing passion for video games. I ended up spending a good portion of the paycheck in the arcade itself, one quarter at a time — and I’ve always wondered if the owner knew he’d get most of his money back. But it wasn’t long before people in town noticed the fancy logo at the new “hi-tech” arcade. I was thoughtful enough to make sure the owner had some makeshift business cards I’d put together in case anyone asked, and over the next couple of years I managed to snag several other local design/painting jobs. It was all part-time, hit-and-miss kind of stuff, but I kept it going and was able to save some of the money for college, learn how to manage my time, keep customers happy and balance Maker with Manager.

But most important, I learned I had to hustle. Since my work was always on display, I knew I couldn’t slack off on a job or it was over. I got my first tiny taste of running a hit-driven business — where I was only ever as good as my last product — in a small rural town in Kentucky, drawing logos and painting signs.

You Decide Your Life and That’s Lucky?

I’m in a stickler kind of mood. So flame-on and that’s where this post is coming from. I feel like deconstructing minor points, being over-analytical, so, grain of salt. Please, roll your eyes and I’ll roll mine back at you.

Henceforth and forthwith and so on, I recently caught this video. On one hand I really like it. It’s got a great theme, it’s funny, fun to watch and is a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy — totally awesome and I’m glad they did it.

On the other hand, it doesn’t resonate. I just don’t think most people — entrepreneurs or not — are going to connect with wealthy, successful people rapping about how lucky they are. I think viewers would have a far better chance of connecting emotionally if those in the video gave interviews and talked about the impact of helping Sandy victims, but they chose to go the more creative route (from the website):

This song is dedicated to the people who fight every day in the trenches of entrepreneurship. We brought together 25 of some of the world’s top entrepreneurs & investors to participate in this video. We feel super lucky to be building products that make people’s lives better, easier and happier (thus “Lucky Ones”). We’re setting out to raise funds for a few small businesses that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

The verses don’t quite jibe with the chorus for me. The chorus is:

We are the lucky ones,
We are the dream,
And we’ll see it all come true, yah,
Cuz we work all day, and we play at night,
Nothing can stop, nothing can stop,
The dream of the lucky one

The verses are all about persistence and staying hungry, doing something you love, staying the distance, working hard and so on — all great things, surely. The last line of the last verse is:

You decide your life and that’s lucky

Just. No. Really? The platitudinal thrust of it irks me. How are [the singers of the song] lucky? And while we’re at it, what is luck anyway?

So let me sing along. I’m lucky because I get to “work all day” and “play at night”. I’m “the dream” and “nothing can stop” me. So, on the surface, the hook fits the verse: it’s more or less a nice bit of colloquial fluff about how I’m lucky because I get to pursue my dream. I get to work on something exciting. Ground-breaking. World-changing. Do what I love. Follow the vision. I’m a ninja, a rock star (first verse), a “lucky one”.

Okies, so how did I get so lucky that I can be so lucky? What happened there? Let’s try to find cause without over-correlating. Presumably at some point I was at the right place at the right time. I think that’s a reasonable presumption. Circumstances were such, or some event happened, that I got my shot at ninja-rockstar-dream-lover-entrepreneur. And I was ready for it. My preparation met opportunity, right? Or maybe as Napoleon Hill suggested many years ago (by way of Wikipedia), I had the desire, faith and persistence to “reach great heights by eliminating negative energy and thoughts and focusing on the greater goals in hand”. Damn I’m awesome. 

And I’m kinda full of crap. Alrighty, now here’s a snippet of lyrics from another song (there’s a point, I promise!):

Triangle man, triangle man
Triangle man hates person man
They have a fight, triangle wins

Let me reskin this, first attempt:

Opportunity, Opportunity
Opportunity trumps preparation
They have a fight, opportunity wins

Or how about this:

Luck, Luck
Luck beats Work
They have a fight, luck wins

Is it possible that luck and work are not two sides of the same coin? That one is more crucial than the other? Think about it. It’s easy to want to group something that’s not arbitrary (work) with something that is (luck). But how many successful people attribute their success to their hard work? Remember Edison’s famous quote? It’s often misquoted but here’s the original:

None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.

This is commonly viewed as Edison saying it’s all about hard work. But I don’t read it that way. “Trial after trail until it comes” — that sounds more like luck than the scientific method.  And here’s an experiment: Pick some famous successful people and google them with the following pattern, [name] “I was lucky”. For example, Steve Jobs “I was lucky” or Bill Gates “I was lucky” or Andy Grove “I was lucky”. Yeah yeah this is just anecdotal qualitativity masquerading as me-blogger-authority-big-data-backmeup, but you get the gist. The point is, there’s much more to this than “you decide your life and that’s lucky”. The “you decide” part hooking up with the “lucky” part is so third grade, like, you know, “Do you like me? [ ] YES [ ] NO”.

Moreover, all this implies having a goal — keep the faith, dude. Have a vision. Follow your bliss (Joseph Campbell: “Remember the last line? [of Sinclair Lewis‘ Babbitt?”], ‘I have never done a thing that I wanted to do in all my life.’ That is a man who never followed his bliss”). And I think this has potential for being the real fallacy, that objectifying the “thing” or “things” is a primary key in the database of luck. Isn’t the process far more interesting, sustainable, rewarding — without any goal whatsoever? Who on their deathbed laments that which they were unable to accomplish in a material sense? Will I regret not having a bigger house or “owning” more property when I’m dying? Will I bitch and moan about not flying first class more often, not upgrading to the latest iPad, not splurging more often on holiday? Will I cry over all the stock buys I didn’t make? Nah. We all know that we won’t (at least most of us won’t — some of us might).

Maybe what bothers me most about the video, considering its participants, is the third-to-last line in the song:

You’ll never keep playing this game for the money

Hmm, on the surface I just wanna say, right on! But on behalf of those who are actually in business trying to make that business successful (by definition), I calleth the bullshit. Tell your employees that you’re paying with vision and spirit. Make your plans now to give all your money away — or better yet, just give it away as you go because you don’t need it, it’s not about the money. Oh, make your investors keenly aware of your new-found, non-profit altruism, too, and they will be sure to invest more– hold on, wait a tick, you don’t need investors, it’s not about the money!

Yes, yes of course I get the sentiment here: “I love it so much I don’t do it for the money”. Platitudes. Mostly people with enough existing fuckyoo capital say this shit (and yeah, I say it sometimes too). Sometimes certain artists or people with varying degrees of mental illness. But even if you truly, truly, truly aren’t in it for at least a little ROI, try measuring your business by bliss alone and see how long you keep living the dream. 

I’m sure the folks who contributed to the video had nothing but the best intentions — I’m a big fan of several of them! I’m sure that Undrip has the best foot forward on it. And at the end of the day, it’s groovy. But it’s also utterly simplistic and emotionally not-so-present. Did you, O Lucky One, decide your life and that’s lucky? Or — reversalism, please — did you luck into your life and that’s decided? As Forrest said to Jenny, “Maybe it’s both”. Either way, in a complex, multi-dimensional [entrepreneurial] world full of ever-changing perspectives and experiences involving luck, life and work, you’re displaying all the depth of a 2D orthogonal projection, which, I guess, since this is just a video we’re talking about here, is appropriate.