Monday, August 18, 2014

What. Was. I. Thinking?

“Doing the same thing will bring you the same results” is a cliché to be sure, but clichés are almost always grounded in some truth.  A recent poll found more than half of the workforce is unsatisfied, but much of this cohort chooses to stay mired in sameness, because sameness brings consistency and people would rather have predictability than mystery, even when that predictability is dull or toxic.  But while you know what you’re getting at such jobs, you also know what you’re not getting. 
After years of working for one version or another of “The Man,” I left the cocoon of sameness and predictability.  It was no small step walking away from a guaranteed paycheck every other Friday (plus benefits) and into the uncertain.  But the anxiety is laced with exhilaration, the fear tempered by anticipation, and success or failure based on what I do.  Or don't do.  No; no pressure at all.   
Ironically, the poll cited above is the polar opposite of what you find among entrepreneurs.  I have yet to run across someone running his/her own business who would trade that for a return to the corporate arena.  I know one professional who said no to an offer that would at least doubled, and possibly tripled, his income.  It would have also come with many of the strings that he is not bound by in running his own shop.  Even people who have experienced serious turbulence on their own -  realtors in the wake the housing bubble collapse are a good example - have told me they would not have it any other way. 
The biggest adjustment, of course, is not having the daily camaraderie that comes with an office full of other people.  On the other hand, there is none of the drama that seeks company, either.  Like everything else associated with being on your own, you will have to generate interaction with others.  As a bonus, the interaction will be almost exclusively positive.  You’re not going to call people, setup appointments or lunches, or join networking groups in order to have gripe sessions.  And that early morning time in your home office will be far more productive than the first couple of hours in the typical cubicle farm.  Plus, think of all those meeting you won’t have to attend. 
Will it work?  Don't know.  But the present is not going to appreciably change; there is as much chance that, left as is, conditions will worsen rather than improve.  That sort of predictability is highly over-rated.  One of my go-to sayings is "first show up, then see what happens."  I'll keep you posted.    

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer vacation. In Waco. What?

Waco, TX.  Population, just north of 127-thousand.  Located along the Brazos River halfway between Dallas and Austin.  Probably not on the list of hot-spot vacation destinations but it is where I spent mine.  Because that is where the company that is my new business partner is headquartered.  And so goes the life of an entrepreneur.

Before I go further, let me say Waco was not what I expected, though it's a bit fuzzy what I did expect.  The impression you get is of a place that is kind of out there, a spot where no one goes on purpose.  Which would be incorrect.  I went on purpose.  It was a pleasant drive down I-35 from Dallas (because Southwest has not yet discovered Waco), the highway bracketed by the vast Texas countryside. 

I know "everything's bigger" is a cliché but all clichés are grounded in some truth.  Everything about the state is massive, from the space for access roads along most of the Interstate to the vast plains beyond it.  Not many trees, though; at least not many tall ones, which the nature gods must have done on purpose.  If there were tall trees, they would obscure the view and the mass of land would be minimized, at least from the point of view of a driver.  The sense of bigness would be missing.

In the city itself, far more water than I anticipated.  My daily route from the hotel to the training site took me along expansive Lake Waco and the usual homes ones sees along a lakefront.  Someone has made a lot of money there, which brings me to the central point of the trip. 

I had a week's worth of training on the products that will make up my business, and a week's worth of interaction with a half-dozen or so other souls like me.  A couple were also new to entrepreneurship, a couple were branching into a new area, and one couple was planning for the next phase of life.  Good people.  You get to know a bit about folks when you spend eight hours a day or so with them.  I hope the result is some new friendships or some resources to bounce ideas with, maybe both. 

The key lesson that was stressed was an echo of what the guy who recruited me emphasized - set aside your genius for six months.  A company with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales say do that and a smart guy heeds the advice.  I figure people with that sort of track record have probably learned something, that the ideas they're sharing are the result of trial and error, and the value behind the ideas have been confirmed through practical application.  Something about reinventing wheels and things not being broken comes to mind.  Besides, genius is hard work. 

In a word, the week was exhilarating.  With each passing day, the sense of "I can do this" became more pronounced.  As I was driving back to Dallas to catch the return flight, it had moved to "of course, I can do this; how could I fail?"  Any entrepreneur knows that failure is a possibility; it's a risk you take in doing anything, though the risk is a bit larger when you don't have regular paychecks on the 1st and 15th on which to rely.  But there is no reward without risk and not much fun without it, either. 

The remaining ducks are lining up, though Bernice is a little stubborn.  Probably her genius not wanting to be set aside which, when you think about it, is a bit odd for an animal that relies on the flock.  A rebel duck, probably the side of my personality that gets a bit restless and wonders "what if I tried this" on occasion.  For now, though, the company's system makes total sense and it is my system to execute.  Which will begin in a few weeks.  Which has me very excited.  And a bit terrified, too.  Just not as terrified as not taking the plunge.   

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Leaving the nest

Sometimes, you jump out of the nest; other times, you have to be pushed out.  My experience includes a little bit of both.  It wasn’t a bad job nor was it a bad company.  But, it wasn’t a great one, either, and nothing about it was going to change.  The outlook was for sameness, mind-numbing sameness.  And then, my boss did me a favor. 
The company has an intranet site that shows who is in the office or out, if people were traveling on business, when they’ll return, etc.  Beside the boss’ name was “PTO.” Nothing unusual there.  “Honeymoon.” Or there; newlyweds should be able to celebrate, right?  Then came the kicker:  “Bora-Bora.” In one sense, good for him.  In another, it smacked of waiving your wallet in your employees’ faces, a message that explicitly said “because I can” and implicitly stated “and you can’t.” 
He was right; working for him meant that Bora-Bora or some similarly exotic destination was out of reach.  It was that final nudge I needed to jump from the nest.   Into an entirely new world.  One that entails working without a net.  One that puts the onus of success or failure squarely on me.  One that is equal parts exhilaration and abject terror.
In all fairness, it was not a rash decision prompted by one man’s actions.  The idea of making such a move marinated over time, spiced by conversations with others who work for themselves, some for most of their careers and others who faced the same decision point that I did.  The common denominator among these entrepreneurs was that not a one yearned to return a past professional life.  One did so over lunch, where lifted a mug of beer and said, “It’s a lot easier to do this when working for yourself; sure, I’m only going to have one, but it’s one more than I would have dared have before.”  Another, a commercial real estate broker who survived the downturn, told me “If that’s the worst thing that can happen to me, it still beats working for someone else.” 
You wait for life to happen or you can make it happen.  For years, I was the regular workaday guy – earned my degree, went into my chosen field, had a couple of steps up the ladder, changed professions, lather/rinse/repeat. Each job had a ceiling, the ones closest to it are scarce by definition, and then came the economic downturn.  Getting an advanced degree just made me a more educated workaday guy returning, ironically, to the same company for whom I had worked prior to returning to school.  And given the overall outlook, I was grateful for the opportunity.  Until I started to get restless.
Everyone invokes some sort of spirit at some point; I asked my deceased dad for a little help in plotting the future.  Within a few days, I had an interview with a local company for a job directly in line with my education, another with a company that focuses on job postings within my field, and a third that was totally unexpected – an offer to work with a multi-million dollar firm but as my own boss. 
The first interview sounded very much like moving the existing limitations to a different address.  The second was with someone who sounded no older than any of my children; seriously?  The third became two, three, and four interviews with my initial question of “why” gradually becoming “why not?”  What was there to lose in striking out on my own? 
It helped greatly, and I cannot stress this enough, to have a supportive spouse.  When the person who will be as impacted by your decision as you will is on board, finding reasons to say no becomes increasingly difficult.  And so, we said yes.  Which meant spending my vacation week in a place where I daresay few people go just for the fun of it.  But that’s a story for another time. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sequestration Derp

Only in Washington can the specter of reducing federal spending by 1% - or perhaps, more accurately, reducing the rate of growth by 1-2% - be treated as the end of days and only with a grossly uninformed public can this type of deception work.   Politicians shifting facts in order to shape their agendas is hardly news but sequestration has ratcheted the derp level to weapons grade.    
The same president who initially suggested and, later signed, the sequester agreement is now busily campaigning against it, largely because campaigning is all he knows.  Predictably on cue, the alleged cuts are branded as “devastating”, “extreme”, and a host of other scare words that include dire warnings of children eating old people in the streets, week-long waits at airport security lines, and no new cheetahs as the National Zoo.  (The last is actually part of the discussion.)  Who knew that when Hillary raised the “phone call at 3 AM” question that time of day would be the independent variable? 
On the other side, the same House Speaker who proclaimed that he “got 98% of what I wanted” in the sequester agreement is now couching it terms that make one think its impact on defense will mean North Korea taking over Hawaii by next week with the rest of the republic to be ravaged by Islamic hordes a few days after that.  But this is what political gamesmanship will get you.  Boehner and the Repubs surprised Obama by agreeing to the sequester because they thought Romney would win and the deal could effectively be scuttled. 
Let’s put the whole thing in context – federal spending is guided by an evil called baseline budgeting which presumes an annual increase in spending regardless of circumstances.  So when the planned 8% rate of growth is held to 6%, the political class claims a 2% cut.  It’s like your boss deciding that your 5% raise will only be 3% and you complaining of a salary reduction. 
Sequester or not, the feds are going to spend more this year than last; no one outside of DC confuses this with an actual cut.  Ergo, the president’s perpetual campaign remains in motion, spreading its message of fear that the very thing he once championed will now usher in a parade of horribles.  Meanwhile, the Obama dogwashing committee is impervious to fact, even turning on one-time favored son Bob Woodward.  In our modern politics-as-religion world, the only thing worse than a heretic is an apostate; how dare Woodward act like a reporter instead of a stenographer. 
When federal spending is close to 4-trillion dollars a year, close to half of it with borrowed money, and the prospect of reducing that rate of growth by 85-billion causes heads to spin, one conclusion is that tinfoil has become the nation’s default headgear.   And even if spending were being cut by 1-2%, pretending that it signals the collapse of empire is delusion at an exponential level. 
Consider how many Americans have managed to trudge on despite income stagnation if not outright reduction over the past several years.  Yet, govt pretends that it is sacrosanct in that regard.  Even its unholy trinity of waste, fraud, and abuse is absent from this discussion as if talk of controlling spending renders all three of those concerns moot, that not a single nickel of federal spending is unnecessary and that to believe otherwise is unpatriotic and probably insane. 
Predictably, the partisans have circled their respective wagons and are dutifully blaming each other for something both sides agreed to do, something neither side spent much time discussing during the 2012 campaign.  Then again, neither Team Red nor Team Blue has much of an interest in actually cutting spending; the Reds like to talk about cuts and the Blues have never met a dollar of someone else’s money that could not be spent.  And the debt marches on. 
Perhaps just as predictably, this too shall pass, much like the fiscal cliff before it.  The problem, of course, will not be solved largely because both sides refuse to meaningfully acknowledge that it exists and that resolving it means there can be no sacred cows.  Instead, look for a continuation of the sacred bull that always surfaces when the topic of spending comes up, because DC knows it can get away with that.  How else do you explain a proposed $2-million dollar cut from the proposed $20-million dollar budget of an agency that no longer exists?  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Self-indulgent pricks: Meet the new America

Harsh?  Maybe.  Untrue?  Hardly.  What the 2012 election made clear, and what subsequent events have confirmed, is that a special kind of cognitive dissonance has infected the body politic on two fronts: 1) the notion that the players can stay the same, but somehow, magical change will occur and 2) that cutting is well and good so long as it does not affect me. 

The dissonance is augmented by confirmation bias, where people tune in to news and information sources that will confirm their pre-existing beliefs.  It's what allows Obama supporters to cheerlead when the President in 2011 vowed to veto efforts to block sequestration and also cheerlead today when he proclaims the sequester as equivalent to the end of days.  On the other side, the same Repubs whose majority through 2006 ushered in all manner of new and higher spending suddenly found fiscal religion when the next POTUS, not a Repub, continued that trend. 

The nation is mired in debt, the economy is stagnant at best, dependency keeps growing, but the pretense out of DC is that cutting a single dime of federal spending will mean children in the streets eating old people and the nation being taken over by radical jihadists.  And this is being said by people whom we elected.  Makes you wonder who is more stupid, them or us.

The intellectual dishonesty in this argument is that no one is really discussing cuts as you, me, and the dictionary would define them; no, in DC cuts mean reductions in the rate of growth.  Therefore, if your employer planned to give you a ten-thousand dollars raise but because of some circumstance was only able to give you eight-thousand, in DC-speak your salary was actually cut.  Yup, that's what I said; when the increase is less than anticipated, that amounts to a cut among the elected class.

We have a system that is unsustainable.  Gimmicks like the payroll tax holiday are just that, gimmicks, and should be called that.  In a normal free society, a watchdog press would do that.  But we don't have a watchdog media,we have an activist media more intent on propagating its point of view than in calling bullshit on stupidity.  And so, here we are. 

In the abstract, people love the concept of change but in the concrete, they want it to only apply to other people.  No one is willing to give up their free pony, not even if they subconsciously realize that the pony will be taken away by necessity at some point.  We have benefits with built-in disincentives to regaining self-sufficiency, we have people who will get more out of certain programs than they ever put in but they see no problem with that, and we have an increasingly lazy populace that believes govt always knows best, despite ample evidence to the contrary. 

Self-indulgent pricks.  It's who we have become.  It's who we shown every sign of remaining for a long time. It's not the mark of a republic that values liberty, self-reliance, or limited govt.  It's embarrassing. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A middle schooler? Really?

Every now and then, someone who you think would know better says something so ridiculous that it's all you can do to keep the car between the lines.  Especially when what is said is coming through your car radio during afternoon rush traffic.  On a North Carolina radio station today, and which one or who said it immaterial, a guest remarked that business leaders looking for the next big thing would do well to talk to a middle-schooler since, apparently, that age group is filled with sages of the future.

The guest's rationale was that young people are marinated in technology from such a young age that surely any new development would be somehow related to the wired world.  Maybe, but we're also the country that is graduating an alarming number of high school students who spend their first year of college taking remedial work.  They did so well in math and English the first time that they are paying for the privilege of doing it again.  I'm not so sure my company's next great path is going to be outlined by someone who can barely conjugate a verb, or knows what conjugate even means, let alone by a person whose next great challenge is going to be dealing with teenage skin. 

Look, I am fascinated by the young's comfort around new gadgets and widgets, but let's be honest:  gadgets and widgets are all they know.  It's like previous generations being able to manage hand tools.  And before this sounds like one of those old fart rants about the yoots, it's not.  Kids are products of their environment and part of that environment is a school system that is largely failing them, a system that, curiously enough, is run by us, people who should know better. 

Earlier this month, Ben Carson spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast about how his mother instilled in him and his brother a love of reading.  What kid reads anymore?  At least, what kid reads an actual book that has to do with something other than vampires, witches, or romantic fantasies?  JK Rowling had a great idea in creating the Harry Potter series of books as a means for encouraging children to, well, pick up books.  Then came the Twilight series.  But is anyone reading anything of substance?  A history book?  A biography? Even a non-fiction book that does not involve the supernatural? 

The biggest hole of all in the radio guest's summation was ignoring how critical thinking is missing from much of society, the adults included, to be sure.  People talk to each other, in large part, with talking points they don't always understand themselves, gathered from news outlets that confirm their existing biases.  If the parents can't be bothered to have their dogma challenged, it's a bit presumptuous to think a 12-year old is going to. 

The future will hold things you and I can only imagine, and probably some things that we can't.  A few of those will be developed and designed by someone who is 12 today.  But before then, a good deal of other innovation is going to come by people who see a problem in search of an answer and a market niche in search of filling.  And not to be too hard on the guest, but there really is more to life than technology.  The tools make many things more convenient, but they are not the alpha and omega of life.  Instead of worrying about how to appeal to middle-school children, entrepreneurs might want to focus on people who have disposable income, people whose businesses could benefit from whatever new comes along, and people whose lives will be somehow improved from innovation.  Let the middle-school kids be middle-school kids.  And encourage them to think.  Preferably for themselves. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Complicating the simple

Modern-day political discourse very closely resembles religion:  each side is so firmly rooted its dogma that, by definition, it must treat all other belief systems are heresy.  Just look at what happens - whenever someone with an R or D next to his/her name lays out an idea, someone else from the other side predictably comes forth to tells not just how horrible the idea is, but to also question the motives and character of the person making it.  As a result, substantive discussion or debate is neutered before it can even start.

It's easy, and perhaps satisfying, to pretend that "the other side" is responsible for all that it wrong with the country but that misses a larger point.  There may a difference in degrees of responsibility but the malicious truth is that both sides have built a system that caters to the excesses of each.  Consider this thing called sequestration - the two parties both have their sacred cows and each treats that cutting either defense or the social welfare system by a nickel will wreak untold havoc on the populace.  In simplest terms, that's bullshit. 

We have a systemic problem, rooted in something very few folks - and this probably includes me - fully understand:  baseline budgeting.  This gimmick, and that's it is, automatically raises the federal budget for no greater reason than the turn of the calendar.  Doesn't matter what inflation is, doesn't matter if a program is great or useless, doesn't matter if the world has started spinning in the opposite direction.  It is THE commandment of Washington - thou shalt increase the budget of each and every federal agency each and every year.  Usually, by somewhere between four and eight percent. 

Does your salary go up by that amount every year?  Do you even expect your expenses to go up by that figure every year?  So, we have one more example of one set of rules for the elected class and a second set for the rest of us.  Only problem is, we get to pay for the rules of the elected.  Baseline budgeting is the reason why one party accuses the other of "draconian cuts" whenever it is suggested that instead of an 8% increase, perhaps Program X should only be raised by 3%.  Lost in the discussion is that either methodology increases spending.

One of my favorite savings is foreseeable consequences are not unintended.  Read it again.  In simpler terms, when you know what the outcome is going to be, it is reasonable to conclude that outcome was intentional.  And it is now fair to say that our current fiscal predicament is, in fact, intentional.  Spending at the federal level has ALWAYS gone up but the strength of the US economy has usually been able to sustain it.  The economy's steady, if not predictable, growth has absolved the Congress and most presidents of any sense of ownership or responsibility.  Why set priorities and why maintain some semblance of budgetary balance when there are no repercussions for failing to do so? 

A debt of 16 trillion dollars does not differentiate between Red and Blue; it makes no distinction between conservative and liberal; it sees no difference between gender, race, ethnicity, or orientation.  At some point, it might be worthwhile to notice the elephant - this monstrosity of a debt affects us all.  So, what is the elected class going to do about it?  To date, not a hell of a lot beyond the usual finger-pointing, selective use of numbers, and gamesmanship that has led so many to drop out of the voting public.  When you think about it, it is a crime of sorts that barely half the population participates in presidential elections and far less takes part in state and local races.  

Folks, there is a problem out there and its name is the political class that claims to want to work on our behalf.  If these folks worked in our companies, we would long ago have fired them.  And yet, these people ARE on our payroll and we keep re-electing the vast majority.  It is we the people who have created this cluster, in large part because we have found it very comfortable to let govt take care of so many details we should be taking care of individually, in our communities, and through civic groups.  Ironically, we have a govt that exactly mirrors those who elect it - massive debt, little tolerance for innovation, and the desire to blame someone else rather than to be accountable.  Want to see the problem?  Look in the mirror.