Getting Back Up

Fred Wilson has a post at AVC that isn’t mind blowing, but it is oh so right:

I recently had breakfast with a friend who is an entrepreneur. He had a really rough start to 2015. His business had a tough year in 2014 and he realized at the start of 2015 that if he didn’t make some big changes to the team and operating structure and costs he was going to hit the wall. He sort of did hit the wall to be honest.

He cut out a layer of management, he cut costs across his entire operation, he got back involved in his product and operations, he worked harder and longer than he has ever worked, including when he started the company…

After he told me all of this, I told him that I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t get knocked down in the ring at least once or twice. I told him that you can read all you want and get all the advice and coaching that is available and you still will not learn the hard lessons that one has to learn to become best in class at what you do. I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to learn some things the hard way to really learn them well.

Back in the 90s I started a small b-to-b newsletter publishing company. For the first couple of years things went well, and then they didn’t. Before long the business was running on fumes and my personal life was in a shambles. In retrospect the traits that allowed me to start the business in the first place – being young, dumb and brash enough to think I could do it – ended up being my greatest weakness when the business struggled. I didn’t know how, or who, to ask for help. I thought I could figure it out on my own and I couldn’t.

In the end I shut the business down because I didn’t have the energy to save it and my marriage/family life. I moved on to another publishing company and actually got to do some pretty cool things for them that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. My marriage and family stayed intact and became stronger as a result. Eventually I went back out on my own as a consultant and had a great run before taking the job that I’ve enjoyed for six years (and counting).

The lessons learned from that “failure” included:

  • Family first. Always, and forever.
  • Know the value of humility. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all and you should surround yourself with people who can do the things you can’t.
  • People actually like being asked to help, and if you do ask almost everyone will do what they can to help you.
  • Never stop learning and trying to grow. This applies both professionally and personally, and as Fred points out in his post, your failures are actually great opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Small example: I didn’t use a payroll company because I didn’t want to spend the $100/month for their service. Let’s just say the mistakes I made ended up costing far more than that. One of the first things I did at my current job? Got us set up with a payroll company.

Are these common sense bromides that you can find in any small business/entrepreneurial website, book, blog or magazine? Yep. So why am I sharing? Because I read all those things and the lessons still didn’t sink in until I lived through them. I’m hoping at least one of you will be spared the pain if you hear it from one more source.

I also believe in paying it forward, so if you ever find yourself in a bind and think there’s no way out I’m more than willing to listen and hopefully find a way to help. If nothing else I can offer a sympathetic ear.

There’s no shame in failing but it’s a huge mistake to not get back up and push on. Another well worn sentiment that you’ve probably heard a thousand times, but it’s worth saying again because it’s true. Believe me, I learned the hard way.

Camping

Somehow I came across this blog post titled Camping with Architects and almost laughed out loud when I read this part:

One of the most interesting aspects of camping with architects is setting up the actual site because it brings the urban planner out in all of us. How each family assembles their assortment of canopies, tents, fire pits, picnic tables, cars, even towel-drying ropes tells a lot about the architect’s sense of spatial composition and organization. With proper planning and collaboration, an authentic sense of village might even be achieved. This is where I often drive my wife a bit crazy! I like EVERYTHING set up just right: things aligned, objects rationally placed in a clear organization, views considered, balance achieved… I even consider details like where the openings of the tents are and where to place my reading material. My kids mess everything up within an hour, but heck, since we are on vacation I try not to let these things affect my blood pressure.

So why did I laugh? Because I had this crazy idea of forwarding the post to my wife and when I thought about how she’d react I had a good giggle. First of all it would be impossible for her to imagine me camping at all. We’ve tried it a few times and it’s never gone well. I whined like a teething baby the whole time and generally made everyone around me miserable. Second of all, the whole idea of me EVER driving my wife crazy because of any amount of attention to detail is just downright ludicrous. My version of campground planning would involve trying to figure out a way to hook our tent to the car’s AC so that we could somehow control our climate.

Here’s the thing – we humans have literally spent thousands of years suffering through whatever Mother Nature’s thrown at us. Then we discovered all kinds of great things to control our environment, air conditioning in particular, and someone got the brilliant idea that the best way to celebrate this is to willingly do without it while spending days getting grimy and smelly while we pretended to enjoy the experience. What’s the sense?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nice hike through nature in places that don’t threaten my existence (no bears, snakes or sheer cliffs for me) and the quiet and solitude to be found by a body of water that isn’t trying to drown me is awesome. But, and this is a big but, I have no desire to spend the night trying to sleep there protected only by a pop-up bubble of nylon. Air conditioned cabin? Sure thing, but otherwise don’t invite me on any excursion that doesn’t at the end of the day result in me eating a nice meal (one not cooked using with a thing that requires little green Coleman propane canisters), and sleeping on a mattress in a climate controlled room. If you can’t guarantee me that then just leave me behind.

Working or Being at Work

The video below about a company that has its employees work a 32-hour week has a graphic that says the average American worker is working 47 hours per week. Maybe, but more likely the average American spends 47 hours at work and only a certain percentage of that is actually doing something considered productive work. The rest of the time is spent on dealing with email, chit-chat with coworkers, Candy Crush, etc. If we all knew we only had 32 hours to get our jobs done I wonder how much more intensely we’d focus on our actual work?
http://www.theatlantic.com/video/iframe/396527/

Useful Typography

These 26 key rules from Butterick’s Practical Typography might be the most useful listicle I’ve seen in years. A sample:

  1. The four most im­por­tant ty­po­graphic choices you make in any doc­u­ment are point size, line spac­ing, line length, and font (pas­sim), be­cause those choices de­ter­mine how thebody text looks.
  2. point size should be 10–12 points in printed doc­u­ments, 15-25 pix­els on the web.
  3. line spac­ing should be 120–145% of the point size.
  4. The av­er­age line length should be 45–90 char­ac­ters (in­clud­ing spaces).
  5. The eas­i­est and most vis­i­ble im­prove­ment you can make to your ty­pog­ra­phy is to use a pro­fes­sional font, like those found in font rec­om­men­da­tions.
  6. Avoid goofy fonts, mono­spaced fonts, and sys­tem fonts, es­pe­cially times new ro­man and Arial.

My number one rule for this blog is “Pick a template and don’t deviate” since I figure someone much better at this than me spent a lot of time thinking about how it should look.

Water and Government

In the United States one of the things we take for granted the most is the easy access to clean water that we have. The vast majority of us live and work in places that we can walk into a room, turn on a tap and have as much clean water flow out of it as we need. And it’s cheap – of all the bills we pay the water bill isn’t usually the one we struggle to cover. The only time we don’t worry about it is when we experience a drought and then it jumps to the top of our list of things to worry about.

Last month I was in Las Vegas for a conference and one of the speakers there was a guy named Doc Hendley. He happens to live in Boone, NC which is just over an hour’s drive from my house and he founded a remarkable organization called Wine to Water. At this particular conference (the National Apartment Association’s annual education conference) he served as the keynote speaker for the awards ceremony, and every year that particular slot is reserved for a speaker with an inspirational story. Well his sure was, and I encourage you to hear it when you can, but what causes me to mention him here is that his organization does.

Wine to Water works overseas in some of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the world in an effort to give communities access to water. The most memorable part of Doc’s presentation, at least to me, was when he talked about shifting from just installing wells in communities and leaving, to teaching them how to install and maintain their own wells. He’d seen what happened when other agencies came in, put in a well and just left. Within months or years those wells were not functioning and no one in the community knew how to fix them. The folks at Wine to Water figured out how to build wells using materials that were readily available in the community so that the people who lived there could fix them when something went wrong. In other words they taught them how to fish rather than just giving them a one-time gift of a cooler full of fish.

So that’s what his organization is doing in places like the Sudan, but what happens here in the US when an area experiences an epic drought, private wells throughout a community go dry, and the folks who live there can’t afford to have new ones dug, and if they can afford it there’s a two year waiting list? Well, of course another charitable group pops up to help meet their needs (see the video below) but their efforts are definitely a band aid approach.

If one guy from NC can figure out how to help people half way around the world help themselves you would hope that we could figure out a way to help a bunch of Californians help themselves. If you watch the video you’ll hear the editor of the local paper say it’s a money issue – that it will take $30 million to get the residents without access to the city’s water system hooked up – and if that’s the case then it’s just a matter of making it a priority for the government at some level. Sounds simple, but we all know it’s not.

Here in Lewisville, NC many of us are hooked up to the city/county water system, but most of us don’t have sewer lines near us so we have private septic systems. Unfortunately much of the land here is high in clay content so it doesn’t perk well, and that means the septic fields in older housing developments are beginning to fail rather regularly. When they do the fix can be anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars up to $15-20,000 and many people on fixed incomes don’t have the money to do it. So they pay someone to come out and pump their tanks weekly – a band aid approach – and hope the health department doesn’t catch on. The town’s leaders are well aware of the issue, but running sewer lines is very expensive and they aren’t going to do it until they absolutely have to. Basically it comes down to money and priorities, and until either the right opportunity comes along to run new sewer lines (for instance the county building a new school which would require new lines run into that area) or it turns into a health crisis, there just won’t be enough political momentum to get it done.

That’s what’s going on in East Porterville, CA. Quite frankly those 900 households with dried up wells are caught in the middle of a much bigger problem. California’s drought is massive and is revealing long-term issues for the state that go well beyond drinking water for this one community, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering and that also doesn’t mean a solution shouldn’t be provided. That’s what good government is about and it will be interesting to see how this develops because we’re almost certain to see more situations like this in the future.

So back to the concept of teaching a community to fish. Here in the US we have something that many of the communities that Wine to Water serves do not: a functioning, stable government. That’s true at the local level, the state level and the national level. Yeah we all gripe about our government and joke about the ineptitude of our not-so-beloved bureaucrats and politicians, but in the grand scheme of things we have it great compared to the rest of the world. So maybe in this country, with our wealth and stability, the fishing is about how to effectively work with government to make sure that residents’ basic needs are met. Everyone I know, whether they’re staunch conservatives or liberals, do agree that government is necessary. They may not agree on how much government is necessary, but they do think we need it for the health and well being of our citizens. It would be hard to argue that access to clean drinking water is not part of the basic package that government should deliver.

Don’t agree with me on that last sentence? Well, think about it the next time you turn on the tap that’s likely less than 30 feet from where you sit reading this.