“We don’t chew gum in first grade!”

Harold Ramis passed away this week. Mike Landman forwarded me this great story that Ramis shared years ago:

I’ve told this story to my shrink many times, which says it all. It’s 1950, I’m 6 years old, and it’s the first day of first grade. I am chewing bubble gum at morning recess, and I go back into class chomping away. The teacher—a stern woman, exactly what you’d imagine for that era—looks at me and asks, “What’s in your mouth?” I say, “Gum!” She growls, “We don’t chew gum in first grade! Go back to kindergarten until you’re ready to be a first-grader!” She opens the door, I step out into the hall, and she slams the door behind me.

My first thought was, Injustice! I was actually a good boy. Yet there I was, standing in the hallway all alone. I didn’t even remember where kindergarten was, because the summer had gone by. Even if I could’ve found it, I thought, I can’t walk into a strange room and say, “I’m not ready for first grade. Can I stay in kindergarten?” It was just too terrifying. So I left.

I lived two blocks from school. As I was walking, I was thinking, Well, I thought school was going to last a little longer than one day. I thought maybe there might be some college in there. But even then, I knew I’d rather give it all up than go back into that classroom. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t upset. It was just a decision: If school was that crazy, if people were that cruel and intolerant, I didn’t belong there.

When I got home, my mother called the school. Apparently, there had been a mad search to find me. The teacher had stepped out into the hall after a few minutes to see if I was sufficiently humiliated, and I wasn’t there. I don’t remember having any further trouble from that woman, or any other teacher. My mother was pretty tough.

That experience made me suspicious of any kind of institutional authority, and that view has never changed. It made me identify with outlaws (even though I never really acted like one). Being from Chicago didn’t help with authority issues. The great history of labor unions and anarchy are all tied up with Chicago, and I was more sympathetic to that history because I always felt like one of the outsiders.

Then I started college in ’62, when the fun began: the free-speech movement, the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement. It was us against institutional America. It wasn’t new for me—I’d always had that attitude. I’d felt countercultural and alienated long before the Summer of Love.

But an interesting thing happened in those ­college years. I realized that my first-grade experience accelerated a major aspect of maturity: the ­capacity to embrace ambiguity. I tell my kids about this, because I think the earlier kids can wrap their brains around that, the better. Things were allegedly black-and-white in the ’60s, but even then I was aware that not everyone with long hair was a good guy, and not everyone on the other side was bad.

From there, many other long-entrenched lies became clearer. I mean, kids are lied to from day one just so they’ll feel safe in the world. We tell them our government knows what it’s doing, that all policemen are good, that priests and ministers are divine and above moral reproach. One of my favorite history books, Lies My Teacher Told Me, looks at high school history texts and the distortions they contain. I live with the assumption that nothing is true just because the government or the media or your teacher says it is. Today, we face problems with no solutions, but you’ll never hear that from a politician. I wish someone would stand up and say, “There will always be poor people, disease, and injustice. We will always be at war with somebody, probably for good reason.” I’d vote for that guy.

Finally, the gum episode gave me a jump on taking responsibility. I see life as a series of moral, ethical, and creative choices, and I started making those quite early. Did that lead me to become a director? Maybe. Decision-making created an aura of leadership that has rewarded me for a long time.

So maybe an intensely negative experience evolved into a positive. I’ve become a history buff over the years, but sometimes the most interesting history to learn from is your own. Even more important, you want your kids to learn from it and—if he’s not tired of hearing about it—your shrink.

Making it hard for the little guy

“It’s been a long time gestating,’’ Duany said in a phone interview from San Diego, where he was speaking at a small conference focused on Lean Urbanism. “To get a building built in a city is fantastically complicated. The codes are rigamarole. There is no way you can figure them out yourself. You have to hire lawyers and consultants. So the result is that everything is left to big corporations and big developers.’’

That’s Andres Duany talking about the challenges facing creative, local builders and developers.

I completely agree. Regulation favors big business, and this sort of sludge drives talented entrepreneurs to enter other industries, where they can spend more of their time creating and less of it fighting for the freedom to create.

HT @vincentggraham & @tcgraham06

Statements that are absurd in other industries

Some things that smart people never say:

“Only talented screenwriters produce movies.”

“Only talented site work contractors develop real estate.”

“Only talented chefs start restaurants.”

“Only talented carpenters build houses.”

Something smart people often say:

“Only talented programmers start software companies.”

Why is that?

The Parable of the Stones

Steve Jobs shares his Parable of the Stones about ideas, execution, and craftsmanship:

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

And so we had a lot of great ideas when we started [the Mac]. But what I’ve always felt that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like is like when I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

And one day he said to me, “come on into my garage I want to show you something.” And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.”

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.

And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.

That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.

HT @johnnie

Hitching your wagon to someone else’s horse

Do the majority of your leads come from Adwords? Those key words and phrases won’t always be affordable.

Is Walmart your largest customer? They won’t always ignore your margins.

Does the majority of your revenue come from ad sales that are dependent on traffic driven to you via organic search? Google will eventually change the way things work.

Does your value proposition depend on your salesforce.com integration? salesforce.com will someday buy your biggest competitor.

If we build and sell something, then we’re dependent on others for our success. That’s a great thing, as it strengthens the ties that bind our community together. But it can also be a dangerous thing if your success is single-threaded.

Personally, I like for my company to depend on a great many people, tactics, and businesses – but not on any single person, tactic, or business. I like the idea that we can learn from the loss of a customer who represents 0.03% of our revenue, and apply those lessons in a way that improves our service for all the other customers who represent 99.97% of our revenue.

The organization that depends on many small relationships will suffer small injuries regularly, and their injuries will strengthen them. The organization that depends on very few large relationships will suffer large injuries very infrequently, and their injuries will damage them.

“How might we…”

Here’s a little change that can have a big impact. Try it. It works.

You will literally never hear him say, “I can’t.” He uses more constructive versions of that sentiment that emphasize the possible, such as “I could if I…”

…IDEO’s favorite antidote to negative speech patterns is the phrase “How might we…?” It was introduced to us by Charles Warren, now salesforce.com’s senior vice president of product design, as an op­timistic way of seeking out new possibilities in the world….In three disarmingly simple words, it captures much of our perspective on creative groups. The “how” suggests that improvement is always possible. The only question remain­ing is how we will find success. The word “might” temporarily lowers the bar a little. It allows us to consider wild or improbable ideas instead of self-editing from the very beginning, giving us more chance of a breakthrough. And the “we” establishes own­ership of the challenge, making it clear that not only will it be a group effort, but it will be our group.

My EOx talk on empowerment, trust, and freedom in the workplace

EOx is a quarterly event put on by the Atlanta chapter of Entrepreneurs Organization. They invite entrepreneurs to give a brief talk on “entrepreneurial ideas worth sharing.”

Outside of Forum, EOx is my favorite EO event, and I was honored to have the opportunity to speak to this crowd. Joining me at the podium that night were Robert Dreesch, Benjamin Rudolph, and Reid Smith-Vaniz of Reliant Technology (one of my forum mates). Last quarter, two other forum mates shared their stories: CBQ of Big Nerd Ranch and Sean Cook of ShopVisible. Set aside an hour, and listen to what they have to say.

For my talk, I decided to share the short version of how our company switched from a rather conventional organizational path to the path we’re on today. To pack it into eight minutes, I left out a ton of stuff, but I tried to hit all the high points. Let me know what you think!

Speakeasy deserves some special thanks. They are one of EO’s sponsors and helped all the presenters (me especially) avoid looking and sounding like complete fools. ATV hosted us, and Friendly Human aced the video production.

Should businesses match charitable contributions?

One of our team members recently asked,

What do you think about having our company match charitable contributions?

Here is a slightly edited version of my reply:

Thanks for raising that question. Philosophically, I think the business exists to provide people (both shareholders and employees) with the freedom and means to pursue whatever path they choose for themselves, including the support of organizations they feel merit their investment. But I am uncomfortable with our business supporting non-profits directly (except in cases where there is a direct marketing benefit or business-case to be made for how that support helps further our mission). As such, I would rather our shareholders and employees make donations individually, using the profits they’ve earned from their investments or the money they’ve earned from working here.

Having lent board-level leadership support to non-profits in the past, I have learned more than I wanted to know about how many of them operate. As a result, I’ve become extremely selective about the organizations to which I lend my family’s support. Peter Buffett correctly described the rise of what he called the Charitable Industrial Complex, and his arguments for scrutinizing the results of personal charitable investments resonate with me.

My opinion is, of course, imperfect and likely wrong. For that reason especially, I think it more appropriate that people make their own decisions about how to support their favored charities. My gut tells me that by amplifying an individual’s charitable donation preferences with other peoples’ money that we 1) inevitably use their money to support organizations that owners wouldn’t otherwise choose to support, and 2) dampen the supporters’ scrutiny of the non-profit’s actions and results.

Milton Friedman said there are four ways to spend money, and my sense is that matching contributions would fall into his fourth (and least efficient) way.

Think Local: Yeoman Entrepreneurs & The Leaders They Lean On

Branson, Jobs, Pink, Hsieh, Collins, Moore, Lencione, Maslow, Chouinard. I learn a lot from these titans of industry and philosophers of organizational behavior. They inspire me to set my sights on high mountain peaks, and I’m grateful for their willingness to share their stories and insights in books, blogs, articles, interviews, and social media.

But the entrepreneurs and leaders who help me most – the people who take the time to think about my situation, who know my disposition, and who share their own relevant experiences to help me move farther, faster, higher, and stronger – are a close network of local folks that you wouldn’t know from Adam. These yeoman entrepreneurs and leaders are actually in my arena, and they are marred by the same dust and sweat and blood as I am.

A few groups that I lean on:

  1. My Entrepreneurs Organization Forum. We get together once a month for a formal meeting, plus some other less formal meetings here and there. My forum mates know pretty much everything about my business, and in helping me to develop, they learn new things about themselves and their businesses as well.
  2. SaaS Day. Every three to six months, I get together with about eight other SaaS entrepreneurs to discuss a handful of issues that relate to our businesses. Before our meeting, we’ll zero in on two or three topics, and then have a formal conversation about them. Topics range from how to handle support requests, to recruiting, to pricing strategy.
  3. ROWE Lunches. I know about a half dozen other Atlanta entrepreneurs who are building empowered work environments. Every so often, we’ll get together for a casual lunch in which we share the challenges we face and the manner in which we overcome them.

Meetups offer similar opportunities, but there’s a lot to be said for the familiarity and candor that happens in a small, selective, tight-knit talented group of people.

Forums and roundtables aren’t just for business owners. Some of the members of our team have recently started building their own close networks of accomplished peers: Our marketers created a marketing roundtable with a handful of other B2B marketing leaders, and our head of sales is constantly reaching out to other heads of sales to see how they’re building their operations and share the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Learning from others’ experiences is one of my favorite things about entrepreneurship (and life!), and I’m grateful to all the wonderful people who are willing to share their stories and counsel. Who are the people you lean on to help you develop personally and professionally?

All I want for my business for Christmas

Here’s my Christmas wish list:

Recruiting. I’d like two more friendly, accomplished, and committed web application developers; a stalwart sales and support engineer who can also shoulder some product analyst responsibilities; one more talented web designer; and a healthy pipeline of candidates for our sales and support team.

Sales & Marketing. I’d like a simple way for us to track opportunity sources, particularly when multiple sources contribute to the opportunity’s creation. We’re doing an OK job tracking the primary opportunity source, but I sense that we’re missing something by not recording and reporting on all the other sources that have contributed to the opportunity’s creation. As a bonus, I’d like this gift to come with an elf who can go back through all of our opportunities ever created, and append accurate information.

Office Space. I’d like a 5,000+ square foot office space option in Midtown ATL that welcomes sweet dogs; has a wonderful outdoor space (rooftop would be ideal); has great lunch options within an easy walking distance; has excellent light, tall ceilings, and a very cool build-out; and will cost us less than $20/sf.

Health insurance. I’d like simple health insurance options that reward healthy lifestyles in a meaningful way; require very limited administration; and empower our employees to make their own decisions about how to invest the health insurance money that our company spends on them.

What’s on your list?


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