How to Make a Family Happen

Volunteering and serving on non-profit boards has been an integral part of my life. For the past 14 years I have been deeply involved with Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, which is one of the most expansive agencies serving  Los Angeles County. Hathaway-Sycamores will impact the lives of more than 8500 children this year through 26 innovative programs, from residential care and counseling for youth at risk to foster family placements and permanent adoptions.

Our signature fundraising event each year is called Celebrating Children. We invite all our wonderful donors and sponsors to this gathering in the fall, and for the second year we have held it in the Stadium Club at Dodger Stadium when the Dodgers play an away-game. I am the event chair as well as the MC, which gives me the privilege of working closely with our dedicated staff all year-long to bring friends together in a room filled with love. We broadcast the game on a multitude of monitors and invite a retired Dodger Great to join us. This year we welcomed the legendary Ron Cey to talk a little about his career and a lot about how the Dodgers are also rooted in community service. We then honor one  or two of our supporters with our highest service award, and this year that went to my dear friends, Annsley and George Strong, longtime contributors of their time, money, and vision to the kids and families of Southern California.

All that is wonderful, but it’s not what I really wanted to post just now. We held the event earlier this week, and as we do each year we made a short video that shows a bit of our work. This year we focused on foster care and adoption. We called this story: “How to Make a Family Happen.” The words I write will never do the mission or impact of this work justice, so please have a look:

The Gutierrez and Puccia families who appear in this video were with us at the event, and there were not a lot of dry eyes in the house. They are examples of what happens when individuals decide in their own way to make a forever family happen. These stories are powerful, and they are just two of the miracles we can help make real, to bring a touch of hope and light to a troubled world. If you want to support the kind of work exemplified here, please visit our website.

Please share this video with anyone whose life you think it might touch. There is so much work we can do to improve our communities, and it all begins with local stories of caring and success.

Together, we can make families happen.

How to Lose a Customer for Life for Ten Bucks

Steve Martin in his heyday had a funny routine called Let’s Get Small. Today I am going to ask you to do the opposite. I am going to ask you not to be small.

A while back I wrote an article called the The $20 Brand Bond, noting how Amazon locked in my loyalty by facilitating a modest refund in record time without asking me a single question. Now I am going to tell you the story from the other end, how a local brick-and-mortar company lost me forever for half that much.

wine corksThis was the very definition of a no-brainer. My wife and I recently went to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, which since it opened offered a no-corkage policy if you bought a bottle of wine at a shop a few doors down. We had done this several times and enjoyed the restaurant as well as spent a little more on wine, since there was no mark-up after retail. All was well with the village—until we walked in one Friday with a store-bought bottle stickered with the retail shop’s brand, only to be told while the waiter was uncorking it that the no-corkage fee no longer applied weekends but was now good weeknights only. I asked why the fellow at the wine shop hadn’t told me that since we had just been there and mentioned we needed the sticker for the restaurant to waive the corkage. The waiter said he had no idea why, but it was “out of his authority” and he would send over the owner.

This restaurant is about 1500 square feet, maybe 20 tables. The owner arrived a half-hour later. I told him the situation bothered me, that we had followed the routine only to be told after our bottle was open that corkage would apply because it was Friday. He responded, “Well, they should have told you at the wine shop. I’ll have to follow up with the owner there. He should tell his people that we changed this policy. I have to charge you $10 tonight.”

“You’re the owner,” I said. “You have to charge me $10? You have no leeway to make this one-time exception since we didn’t know you changed the rules?”

“We changed the policy so I am going to charge you,” said the owner, and he walked away.

We will never go back to that restaurant. I have told this story to perhaps 50 people around town. I am not naming the restaurant here out of loyalty to our community to prevent harm to our local businesses. Yet here you observe the destruction brought on a business by making the single most important mistake a business can make: not loving customers.

What’s interesting about this particular scenario is that we almost always order extra food when we don’t pay the restaurant for a bottle of wine, and we take home increased leftovers. We also tend to tip heavily and supplement the night’s bill so the restaurant doesn’t get beat on its own promotion. We understand the cost of customer acquisition and operating in a competitive environment. We understand you can change your policies anytime you like and rules are rules, no doubt to be fair and ensure continuity in the enterprise. We also understand that we have choices, we like great value more than we like a reduced bill, and we like to be treated kindly when we are guests in your house. You don’t have to do any of those things. Feel free to advertise, run Groupons, buy ads on Google, whatever you think gets us in the door. What gets us in the door fastest is getting us back in the door after we just had a swell experience. It doesn’t get any cheaper or easier than that.

When it comes to your customers, never think small. Your customers are your lifeblood. Without them your business is nothing. It takes years to acquire a customer base, and marketing is often your biggest intangible risk investment in a new business. You can lose a customer in an instant, and the potential damage to your reputation is unquantifiable. Yelp and OpenTable are only the beginning of your problem when you do a customer wrong. While bad reviews there are almost impossible to shed, they pale in comparison to the power of WOM: Word of Mouth. Casual conversation now travels at internet speed. Word of mouth escalates and compounds exponentially, but we are more predisposed to hear the bad over the good. It might take a dozen people telling you a place is good to try it. It might take only one to get you to avoid it all costs.

Is this just about small local businesses? I think not. Listen to the people around you talk about their cable companies, their phone carriers, their insurance companies. What’s their #1 complaint? Well, cost of course, getting gouged for mediocre products. And then? Customer service. They can’t get anyone on the line to help them. When they do get someone on the line they have little discretion to help them. These customers are held in place by a lack of choice—a situation that won’t last forever. When these neglected customers do have a choice—and they will—they will be gone, gone, gone!

Last week I attended a talk called The Rise of the Chief Customer Officer. I agreed with everything the speaker had to say about making customer service strategic and giving the Chief Customer Officer a seat at the table, except for one thing: I don’t think a CEO or an owner can afford to delegate this title; I think the CEO or owner has to be the Chief Customer Officer. If you want to show your employees what matters to you most, lead by example. Customers matter most. They pay for you to have a business. Contrary to an old cliché, they aren’t always right, but they do always matter. If you don’t woo them at every turn, they will vote with their feet. Or their mouths. Or their smartphone.

Thinking big means thinking long term. You don’t want one-off transactions; they are much too expensive. You want ongoing relationships, where customers return to you because you treat them like gold. Invest in relationships and the transactions will follow. Leave a few bucks on the table today for lifetime value that is unlimited.

Our local restaurateur got his ten bucks for the bottle of wine per his policy. Good for him. The next ten times we don’t walk into his cafe at $100 per seating costs him gross sales of $1000. The ten people who don’t come in because of word of mouth cost another $1000. Multiply by ten years of lost loyalty, that’s $20,000 of topline vaporized. You won’t need an MBA to calculate the negative ROI on that cold hard ten-spot in his pocket.

Still want that extra margin on a bottle of wine on tonight’s tab?

Mentoring is the Secret Sauce

YodaLast month I gave a talk at Innovate Pasadena on mentoring. I shared some reflections on what it has meant to me to have mentors in my personal and work life, and what it means to me to be a mentor when I have the opportunity. I talked about my former staff members who still call me up, the new people whose journey I have joined, and how all that creates an ecosystem of mutual support, vibrant feedback loops, and trusted opinion testing.

It is worth noting given the inescapable subjectivity in this meditation that this is simply how I think about the world, one mentor’s opinion as it were, and not meant to be an encyclopedic statement for all worthy mentors at large. That said, here are some of the key ideas I covered:

What is mentoring? My definition: One person who has ideas and experience to offer engaging in a relationship with another person who has ideas and experience to offer. It’s a two-way street. If it’s not a relationship—which means give and take—it does not work.

What isn’t it? It isn’t me making the hard decisions for you that you don’t want to make for yourself. I think of this as a Socratic dialogue where I get to ask you a lot of questions. You’re going to do all the work, because it’s your work, and I won’t let you dump your work on me.

Am I going to step on your fingers or tell you you’re awesome? Yes. It depends on what you need. This is jazz. I go with the flow. BTW, if you’re not awesome, I’m not going to be interested at all. If I’m hard on you, it’s because I need to be, not because I want to be. If I don’t say anything at all, it’s because I have given up—that’s the worst thing that can happen.

What’s the difference between consulting, coaching, and mentoring? I have given a three-day seminar on this, but think of it this way: When I’m consulting, you’re paying for my experience to fix a problem; you want a recommendation and you want it backed up. When I’m coaching, you’re paying me for my time to bring out the best in you. I think of both consulting and coaching as relatively shorter-term assignments that surely can be extended, and while mentoring encompasses elements of both, I think of it as a longer-term engagement, even if sporadic. When I’m mentoring, we’re both investing in a relationship that helps you do your job, that brings both of us benefits, tangible and intangible. I don’t expect anything when I consult except to get paid on time, which is why I don’t do much of it. I don’t expect you to give back when I’m coaching, I expect you to perform. When I’m mentoring, I expect to get something back from you, even if it’s just satisfaction, but I also expect to learn things from you that I can redirect elsewhere.

Can your boss be your mentor? Yes, if you are very lucky. I’ve had a few bosses who were fantastic mentors. They were 100% in my corner. They were not competing with me. I have also had awful bosses who said all the buzzwords but couldn’t have cared less if I lived or died as long as I made them rich. If you don’t have a good boss, and odds are you don’t, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, then find yourself a mentor. I promise you, the mountain climb ahead is going to hurt a lot less if you have someone who really cares about you—other than your spouse, who is truly tired of hearing all your business problems and probably can’t help you more than she or he already has.

How do I find a mentor? They will probably find you, and the question is, will you be paying attention? Almost no one fills out a mentoring application or posts a listing on Craigslist to be a mentor. Coaches and consultants do that. Mentors opt into a relationship as it naturally expands. Keep your eyes open! If someone is taking an interest in your work, go with it. Incubators and accelerators offer formal and informal ways to meet industry experts, but so do community centers and shared-interest groups. If someone invests in your company and he or she is showing an interest in more than your financial performance, spend more time with them. Do things for people all the time and they will do things for you, often when you least expect it and most need it. You don’t have to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” In fact, most of the time I find out years afterward that someone thought of me as a mentor. It happens naturally.

Will I open my Rolodex to you? OK, first, what’s a Rolodex? The answer is yes, selectively, as trust builds. If I’m financially invested in your success and I think you’ll do well with an open door, I may open it. If I’m not personally invested in you but I think there is a win-win introducing you to someone I know, I may do it, but understand, my network and my reputation are among my most important assets, so if you take advantage of my network, it’s one and done.

Do I get compensated? This can be tricky. Sometimes there is money involved in mentoring, sometimes not. First and foremost, if I admire your commitment or like what you’re brave enough to be attempting, I just do it because thank goodness someone did it for me. I have about 200 or so people from past gigs whom I still call back for free. If you worked for me in the past and reach out to me and you weren’t a turd, I’ll always call you back promptly. Sometimes in a board situation I might get paid something meaningful at liquidity. Sometimes if liquidity is a long way off and it makes sense for everyone involved given the time commitment, I might take a retainer fee. Often I get involved in a project on pure spec with the vague potential of phantom equity. A lot here depends on how much sequential time is involved, as well as how curious I am about your vision. Free or paid, cash or stock, what matters is that we both feel good about it, that the material and spiritual rewards all feel fair, and we are always transparent in our expectations.

Do you have to listen to your mentor for it to work? Yes, you have to listen. You don’t have to do what I say, but I have to know you’re listening. If you’re not listening, then why am I talking? If you just want my contacts or my money, I’m not a mentor, I’m something else. If I say something and you decide you don’t want to do it, that’s cool; just explain your thought process so I know that we are in this together. If you blow me off or don’t afford me that level of respect, I am going to bail.

Must you pay it forward and backward? You must. If you’re not planning to help someone down the road, don’t expect to keep my interest. Good people attract good people. If you join this club, expect to stay in it for life.

 

Stop Dropping the Ball

MittBallI get called frequently to help companies with their brands. Usually this involves helping identify the competitive advantages in products and services, articulating the unique selling proposition around innovations that constitute a customer promise, and then devising a sustainable communications strategy around that promise. That’s the hard part.

There is also an easy part. At the potential obviating of substantial advisory services going forward, here is an exceptionally simple way to solve half your problems. Ready? This applies equally to your personal life and your professional life. Copy and paste the following two words on the palms of your hands so you can see them every hour of every day:

Follow through.

Yes, it is that easy. A brand is a promise. There are three potential paths that follow a promise: (1) you fulfill the promise, wherein you satisfy and keep a customer, at least until someone leapfrogs you; (2) you exceed the promise, wherein you create an evangelist who markets for you; or (3) you violate the promise, wherein you create nasty noise in the marketplace that speaks ill of your offering at every possible turn.

When you break a business promise, you undermine the brand. When you break a personal promise, you undermine your own credibility. This is not negotiable. This is as hard-core real and irreversible as it gets. You need to follow through.

Here are several recent examples of broken brand promises:

  • My wife left her mobile phone on a plane. We went to baggage services. They couldn’t find it. They said they would call us the next day. They didn’t.
  • I went to pay my health insurance bill online as I do every month (I’m told recurring billing is for some reason not available on my plan). This time the system was broken. After on hour on the phone, I got a customer service representative who said she saw the problem in their system, that it would be fixed in 24 hours, and she would call me back. She didn’t call me back, and it wasn’t fixed. A week later I called again and began the process anew. This time another rep gave me entirely different instructions and said he had no idea why the previous rep had instructed me as she did.
  • We hired a contractor to do some work at the house. He didn’t show up. He didn’t call. When we rescheduled and he did show up the next time four hours late, my wife asked why he missed the previous appointment and was now four hours late. He said, “Well, I’m here.”
  • I filled out a time sensitive form online with a state agency. About a week later, I received a personalized letter via snail mail acknowledging my inquiry, conveying that the signer of the letter would get back to me promptly with an action plan. I never heard from him again.
  • A journalist for a high-profile financial periodical contacted me by email to conduct an interview about my book. I agreed and suggested a time. She asked if I could change that to a time that was more convenient for her and I agreed to that time. I gave her my mobile number. She did not call me at the appointed time. After 15 minutes I emailed her and asked if we were still on. Two hours later she emailed and apologized for missing the call because of an emergency. She asked if she could email me the questions. I said yes and she said she would send them. She never did.
  • A producer from a media company emailed me an inquiry to help his company launch a new venture. I said I would be happy to talk about it and suggested some times. I never heard from him again.

Yes, I know, everyone is busy. It’s completely normal to leave loose ends open in our fragmented, email overloaded lives. It can happen to anyone. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave people hanging if you have a good excuse. They will forgive you as soon as the words “I’m sorry” cross your lips.

Baloney! You’re living in a fantasy world if this is what you’ve convinced yourself, no matter if you are a rookie or a veteran. And you’re not as good as you think you are. Not even close. Otherwise you wouldn’t have left me blowing in the wind to be picked off by a competitor.

Winners say what they are going to do and then do it. I don’t care if you have to make lists of your lists. If you aren’t going to do something, don’t tell someone that you areand you’re scot-free off the hook. If you say you are going to do something and then you don’t do it, you lied. Yes, you lied. Or your company representative lied. And by transitive logic, your company lied. To a customer. That is the customer’s perception.

Think you can buy a big bubbly bag of advertising to win back the trust of that customer? Have fun calculating the ROI.

Think you can apologize and win back my trust? You can’t.

Maybe I have choices at the moment, maybe I don’t. If I don’t have choices now, I will soon. That’s what creative destruction is all about, old failed systems being replaced by better ones. Constraints on distribution are lifted from entrenchment every day. No matter what you have to offer, no matter how good you are at what you do, if you don’t show up as promised, you will be replaced. No one will feel sorry for you. No one will bat an eye when you crumble under your own incompetence or arrogance.

This really isn’t hard. In fact it’s as easy as it can possibly get. Make a promise, keep a promise. Follow through all the time. Do that and call me for the other half of your brand problems.

When Reunions Work

High school and college reunions can be terrifying. When former classmates tell you that “you look the same,” how can that be? It might be a nice way of saying you look marvelous now, but does it also mean you looked 30 years older than you were back then? Does anyone really want to hear this? Does anyone really want to be in a conversation where looks come up at all? Or lifetime accomplishments? Or lack of lifetime accomplishments? Or thinly veiled comparisons of someone else’s bragging rights to your own?Paul Simon Art Garfunkel

Suppose it didn’t have to be that way. Suppose there was another way to do a reunion that was enlightening, uplifting, and actually fun. I’ve recently returned from one of those, and I wanted to share what I thought made it a success, along with the last few I attended.

Don’t focus on the then, focus on the next-to-be.

Reminiscing is not that interesting. If you’re like most people, it gets old quickly. At the college reunion I just attended, I found myself spending almost no time talking about the good ol’ days (or the not-so-good ol’ days). I spent most of my time talking about the future, what dreams and plans people currently have and how they are setting out to realize them. It was almost uncanny how little we talked about ourselves as 20-year-old people decades ago and how much we talked about ourselves as 80-year-old people decades from now. My sense is we all got the same memo: You can’t change the past, but you can invent the future. Hmm, which is more interesting, something you can still do something about, or something that is etched in stone? No question, hearing what people still wanted to do with their lives was a rallying cry for engagement, something we could share and something we looked forward to discussing again in five years when we next gathered.

Don’t just talk to people you knewmeet people you could have known and can still get to know now.

Unless you went to a very small school, it’s unlikely you knew everyone in your class. No doubt there is easy measure in finding a familiar face at a crowded party, but maybe that’s only half the story. Or less than half the story. We all had personal interests back then, took specific classes, might have lived in assigned dorms that kept our circle of encounters more contained than it could have been. Here you are now, surrounded by people with whom you might have only a timeline in common, but they have the same number of decades of learning that you do. Can you make new friends later in life? You can if you try. So try. Doors open when people connect, opportunities are unlocked, ideas are shaped and molded. You might even get to hear some new jokes, since you already know the ones your old friends keep telling.

Don’t worry about your perceived shortcomings; see if you can help someone.

We all have dreams. Something many of us have in common is that as we get older our dreams are less grand in perceived scope than they might have been when we were earlier on the path. That doesn’t mean they are less profound. Presume everyone around you has met challenges, overcome some, might be stuck by others. There, you have something else in common. As you network around the floor, think in terms of how perhaps you can offer a tiny bit of assistance to someone else, rather than what they could do for you. Can you listen to one of their eerie stories without judgment and lend a caring ear? Can you introduce someone looking for a job to a friend in your outside network? Do you know a decent insurance broker, honest painting contractor, in-network doctor, or responsible dog sitter who might help someone out of jam? Some of the reunion takes place at the reunion, but it doesn’t have to end there. We have email, texting, Facebook, LinkedIn, and an ancient contraption called the telephone for staying in touch and helping a classmate move forward. All you have to do is put up your hand and offer.

Don’t bring a resume, bring an appetite for good conversation.

One of the things I have enjoyed most about my reunions has been the opportunity to re-engage in abundant dialogue. I’m not talking about chit-chat or exchange of war story credentials or detailed itemizing of the Bluetooth extensions in your low-interest leased car. I’m talking about give-and-take discussion noting how the world has changed in the decades since we left campus. I’m talking about spirited but cordial debate of leaders in public office and business who impact our decision making. I’m talking about a deep verbal dive into a historical biography you and someone else read, a poem that caused you to rethink your values, a comedian who changed your point of view on a political topic through laughter, a social cause that changed the fairness in your community. If you’re at all like me, what you miss most about your school days was the absurd appropriateness of philosophical meandering, the complete normalcy of spending endless hours talking about which artist did or didn’t change the landscape of a craft, the actual line items in a Congressional bill that contradict each other because they are only meant to sound good. When you have financial obligations and work obligations and family obligations and almost no discretionary time in your daily routine, where do you get the refreshing power of pure intellectual exercise? If you haven’t had a good long non-consequential talk in a while, try it at the reunion. You may find it is a bucket or two more consequential than you otherwise believed.

Still not convinced? No worries, the Wayback Machine is not for everyone, but let me leave you with this: When I mention vacationing on a cruise ship or allocating PTO for a class reunion, the reaction is often a visceral: “That’s not for me.” I used to feel that way. Then I actually went on a cruise and had the time of my life, because I did it my way, with lots of daily shore activities and very few trips to the buffet. I had little desire for many years to go to a reunion and reminisce, so when I finally did go, I did anything but reminisce. If you haven’t actually done something, you may not know what it is, so don’t rule it out just because you think you know what it is. You can make any event into the adventure you want if you approach it with an open mind and a reasonable amount of humor.

Connecting with others is a gift that in many ways is without equal. Give that naysayer in you another try. I hope like me you have a blast.

Elon Musk Blows My Mind

I don’t know Elon Musk. I wish I did. This guy knows stuff. He’s the real deal.

MuskIf there is a possible next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, it could be him. He’s not goofing around with thin stuff that’s going to come and go. He already did consumer software engineering as his opening act as a cofounder of PayPal. With the massive payday he got from eBay for the sale of his companya company that continues to operate as such an important platform it could someday be spun off again as an independent entityhe could have taken the path of least resistance and become an elder statesman of the industry, a board member, an investor, a wise individual of counsel. Not Elon Musk. He started not one subsequent company, but twoTesla Motors and SpaceXand leads both as CEO. He is also the CTO of SpaceX and the chief product architect of Tesla. Not exactly a path to retirement. He’s really, really changing the world.

I don’t know if he’s a nice guy. Like I said, I have never met him. But he is truly impressive and worth studying. Here are some perhaps not so obvious reasons why:

A real track record of repeat innovation.

A lot of people talk about being serial entrepreneurs. Elon Musk has pioneered three immensely important companies. The ability for an innovator to find repeat success in entirely new ventures is perhaps the rarest of proven attributes. Edison did it. So did Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Musk made a mark in digital payment systems, then battery-powered automobiles and low-cost rocket propulsion. He didn’t start life as a rocket scientist, but he challenged himself to become one. Try to find a resume like his anywhere. I don’t think you can. He not only articulates a clear, bold vision, he leads from the front lines as a player-coach. He is simultaneously a thinker, a doer, and a peer-respected personal risk-taker with real skin in the game. He makes disruption make sense. That’s how you fire up a team and get results.

The work he does is important.

It was not clear to everyone in the first dot-com bubble that digital payments would be essential to our economy. Heck, most of us were lucky if we had a phone that could do email back then. PayPal opened our eyes. People have been betting against alternatives to fossil-fuel powered automobiles since the first suggestion of battery power on our roads. No matter how many failures it takes, we know that we can’t rely on the limited resource of petroleum forever. Space travel has been massively expensive, the province of federal bureaucracy and a very few goliath government contractors to date. We no longer have the luxury to spend endlessly on going into orbit and beyond, yet we know it is human destiny to explore our universe. All of this matters big time. Musk is actively pursuing a broad but selective set of challenges that he decides warrant his time and focus. This is real turf with lasting impact. It creates sustainable, well-paying jobs. Even when it fails, it moves the ball forward.

He is courageous and daring, but not reckless.

Earlier this year when Elon Musk was profiled on 60 Minutes, he said he was an engineer first. I do think he believes that, which is part of what makes him great, but even more than an engineer, even more than innovator, he is a pioneer. To be a pioneer in technology doesn’t just mean you have interesting ideas. It means you stand by your ideas and will them into being. Musk said in the 60 Minutes piece that with SpaceX he went “past strike 3 to strike 4,” not just betting the farm in failure, but staying with his conviction to the last test he could fund, even if it meant losing everything. He knew he was right, and if he wasn’t right, he needed to exhaust every resource at his disposal to make the case that he should have been right. When Musk recently faced a roadblock in submitting a competitive bid for a government contract controlled by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, he sued the federal government for the right to compete at substantially lower cost. Imagine the guts, to take on his own customer in a public forum, risking financial ruin for a principle. He won an injunction from a federal judge. Whether he ultimately prevails in winning the contract (and I think he will), there is little question that the price of that contract is coming down. Want to know how to get the government to think smarter about our tax money? I like this way.

He walks the walk, with standards that matter.

So much of what I write about on this blogideas like “good enough is not good” and “eat your own dog food”are very hard to understand unless you have lived them. If you’re lucky in your career, you get to work for someone for a while who grinds this stuff into your brain until you literally cannot act any other way, no matter the stakes, no matter the challenges. If you don’t get a boss who inserts that chip into the back of your spinal cord, study Elon Musk. You can’t cut corners on quality with the work he tackles, or people die. Of course you’re going to say, Well, in automobiles and rockets, people do die. Sadly in the march of progress where new machinery does fail, there is no way around that no matter the commitment to extraordinary quality, but the question is, what is the ethos at the core of an enterprise? Is it profit first, a love letter to Wall Street with lip service to safety and excellence? Or is it a standard of safety and excellence that exists a priori to all other decision-making that of itself creates value? When I see Musk discuss failure or success in any public setting after something has gone wrong or right, I don’t worry that his statement has been pureed by a publicist. I see an engineer who knows winning means perfection, and as elusive as perfection remains, he is never self-satisfied, never standing on his laurels. What do you really need to say about a reusable rocket that leaps sideways and then lands on its launchpad? The Grasshopper speaks for itself.

Why write about Elon Musk?

In this never-ending discussion of whether we are in a tech bubble, I have grown weary of broad generalizations. If all we are worried about is whether the stock market is due for a correction, then we are wasting brain cycles on an inevitable head fake we cannot control, so why bother? Our world has an abundance of trendy apps, head-bobbing diversions, and flavor-of-the-month prognostications of what at the moment constitutes cool. You know what’s cool? Stuff that lasts, stuff that can have a lasting impact on growing our economy, stuff that makes scientific dreams into tangible realities, and stuff that in doing so makes investment capital make sense. Musk is doing that, which to me looks like real leadership, and it feels good to applaud him. I don’t care that he is a billionaire. I care that he is a creative leader, with half his life likely still ahead of him to teach us things we don’t know and take us places we couldn’t otherwise find.

As Andy Grove taught us decades ago, Only the Paranoid Survive. Somewhere along the ride, Elon Musk must have gotten the memo. He is probably rewriting it with some form of ink yet to be discovered.

I Was On Fox Business Network

Varney 041714Last week I was invited to appear on Varney & Company, the midday (EDT) market commentary on Fox Business Network hosted by Stuart Varney. It was an opportunity to talk about my novel, This is Rage, and how some of the themes it encompasses apply to current tensions in the Bay Area around affordable housing, income inequality, and the more heated rhetoric of late around our ability to discuss and resolve complex social issues rather than pour rocket fuel on the fire pit.

I didn’t think the live TV interview would be a walk in the woods, and to be honest, I’m not unhappy with it. Varney said what he had to say, I said what I had to say, and I appreciated the near five minutes on-air to promote my book. The strange part for me was what followed. Here are a few of the tweets:

U VILE SOCIALIST COMMIE POS I FELT RAGE WHEN U WERE TALKING!

U R a SOCIALIST donkeyshit4brains COMMUNIST traitor U DO NOT BELIEVE IN CAPITALISM OR LIBERTY I wanted to reach thru screen n STRANGLE your ignorant ass!

Ken is a fool – his comment that if you are rich you should be happy to pay whatever is asked of you – priceless!!

And this comment, posted on my Amazon page:

Saw Goldstein on a Biz program and turns out he’s just another Jew who believes government is not stealing enough from us. Why are so many Jews of this collectivist mindset?

I am not sure what I said to upset those people to that extent, nor did I go on the show to talk about tax policy. My point was rather straightforward: when you hear an outcry, listen, and before you dig in your heels and fan the flames of a conflict, ask yourself if there is something you can do to ease the tension. I do think the repercussions of widening inequality will continue to be severe, not only on moral grounds but in the name of good business. Historically it has been the buying power of the middle class that fuels corporate earnings, and that middle class can remain strong only if income levels do not further polarize. To know my career historywhich was strangely not mentioned in the introduction to the piece, though I was carefully vetted for my credentials prior to the interviewis to know that I believe in our capitalist system and have been a fortunate beneficiary of investment and free-market economics. Were Varney and I really that far apart, or were theatrics applied to make it seem we were further apart than we were? Once I was labeled an outsider in the Fox system, was I simply fair game for rejection by the loyalist audience?

You have to wonder, if someone disagreed with my point of view, would it be ludicrous to expect a tweet like this from a genuinely concerned observer who might even choose not to remain anonymous:

Ken, rent control is not a solution that works in our economy, let the market decide prices or the system will fail.

Of course it would be utopian to expect that kind of exchange, but perhaps it is not meant to be by media design. Ratings follow the heat, and there is more viral value in stirring the pot than in civil discourse. As I explore in my own book, controversy can be a form of currency, whether organic or invented. If you don’t want to engage in the brawl, your voice may willingly go unheard. A recent piece in The Atlantic by Jon Lovett entitled “The Culture of Shut Up” noted the following:

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive—nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right—it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.

Lovett’s concern is that much of the manufactured outage emanating from entrenched media verticals aimed at driving inflamed social media response is antithetical to the free speech it is supposed to represent. I think he is onto something. An awful lot is being said, but how much of that speech is being crafted in considerable thought? If you do have something you feel is important to say, how willing are you to say it in a public forum if you know only seconds after the words leave your lips, strangers are at the ready to attack you, your character, and implications in any spontaneous string of words that may have slipped through your lips without the imposition of editing?

You bet, it’s scary. Want to know why a lot of people who might be good at public office have no interest in running for election? You must really have the courage of your convictions to say anything at all in a public forum, then have blubber-thick skin to weather the attack, and then the media-training skills to know when to hit back and when to walk away. Should the vitriol boil over, you might also worry whether any of those words could become expressions of violence, which curiously enough leads back to the very subject of my appearance on Varney: the outcry of people in the Bay Area being priced out of the housing market. Varney asked me whether this might become physical, to which I replied, I hope not. Some of it comes down to whether anybody is really listening to the authentic outcry, and whether they are playing it back as a media sound bite to amp up their numbers.

Can we have an intelligent discussion and debate about inequality in this country without throwing out memes like “class warfare” and “tax-the-rich socialism”? I think so. I like investing, I like motivating talent to achieve heroic goals, I like serving customers, and I like the longterm rewards that come from years of hard work. I also maintain a sense of empathy for those who are down on their luck, for those who are not in the right place at the right time, and for those who try hard but nobly fail at any endeavor. Are those radical views that cannot be reconciled when we talk? Well, if they can’t, maybe we shouldn’t talk. And there goes free speech.

When I sat in the little windowless room waiting for the prompt in my ear bud for the first question from Varney, I wasn’t thinking about tweets or memes or nasty reactions to my words. I was thinking about what he might ask me, and what I might say, and whether I would come across as credible. Maybe that was naive. Maybe I should be more worried about trying to exchange ideas where the intersection of those ideas is more valuable than what either of us might devise on our own. I had asked my dad the night before how to handle the interview if it got tough. He told me to just be myself. I think that was good advice. That’s who you see on the video. I’m okay with that.