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.

Piercing the Bubble

Almost daily now I’m asked my opinion of whether we are in a stock market bubble. It’s a curious line of inquiry, and inevitably leads to any number of further ponderous meditations that follow:

“What do you think of that King Digital IPO; did Candy Crush get crushed for good?”

“Is Bitcoin for real, and is now the time to get in?”

“Does it look like Zynga is on the mend? Did they hit bottom and create a buying opportunity?”

“What happens to Yahoo’s price post Alibaba?”

“Box or Dropbox, which do I want to own?”

GodotI can almost imagine Didi and Gogo having this conversation in a contemporary reworking of Waiting for Godot. They’d go back and forth on each headline for a few minutes, and the resolving cadence would always be the same: “Nothing to be done.”

They’d probably be right. And wise. And existential. And of course they would be ignored, two bums with nothing but holes in their shoes, playing insufferable word games beside a dying tree.

And I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Crystal-ball predictions of dicey, professionally picked over offerings seem as wacky to me as hardworking people forking over portions of their paychecks to the state government for lottery tickets.

Speaking of which, there’s something even stranger afoot of late, a new pattern of dialogue running through the frenetic networking schmooze scene. It goes something like this:

“WhatsApp wasn’t worth $19 billion.”

“Agreed.”

“It was worth more.”

“You’re kidding. How do you figure?”

“Well, look at what Snapchat turned down at $3 billion. That app had 36 million users and would have gone for $92 per user.”

“Oh, I get it. And WhatsApp had 450 million users, so at $19 billion, that’s a mere $42 per user.”

“You’re right, what a steal. Facebook should have paid more. I bet they would have if WhatsApp had played coy.”

“What about Instagram?”

“I don’t know, what’s Instagram?”

In most discussions of relative valuation based on anything more complicated than revenue, EBITDA, growth rate, and some basic ratios like price/earnings, my head starts to hurt. Ignore all fundamentals, project abstract strategy on modeling unknown monetization value, and you lose me.

That doesn’t mean I’m right, it just means I know when it’s the right time for me to sit out a dance. It’s kind of like someone asking me which is the surer thing in Vegas: poker, blackjack, craps, or roulette. My answer: If you can’t afford to lose, don’t play; and if you can, what does it matter—pick the game that’s the most fun for you and knock yourself out. Someone will take home a mountain of cash every day, because a casino only works if there are winners. Most people will leave their bounty behind, not only to pay the winners but to pay the house for brokering the trade and serving subsidized cocktails—plus the gigantic water fountain out front of the brightly lit, air-conditioned cement tower in the middle of the desert.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in investing. Most everything I have earned working over the years has more than doubled in value over time because of investing—really boring diversified asset allocation in various index-like vehicles, bolstered consistently over time through saving and dollar-cost averaging. Yes, I have speculated on occasion, and I have even had a winner or two, but even then I looked at the core financial analysis when I bet, and those numbers always had growing dollar signs in front of them.

Now I’m hearing young entrepreneurs echoing the exit lingo. “If we can just get 500 million users of our app, how can we not get bought for $20 billion? That’s a massive discount! And we only need to raise another $65K to make it through beta with a minimum viable product. For another $20K we can stress test the server, too. That’s less than $100K investment for a decent front end and the return of a lifetime. Do you prefer the term sheet via email or text?”

This is a different kind of Gold Rush, with its own beguiling logic and normalized ethos, plus many sideline winners selling new-age picks and axes. Should the notion of Built to Last cross your lips in any public gathering, you are likely to be met with curious stares at best, and more often ostracising scorn. Free salty snacks will not be replenished in the small paper bowl you hold. This is not a discussion of how value is created by serving customer needs with wondrous products scaling in gross margin and the brand extensions that follow. This is a discussion of filling the strategic needs of an acquirer that has slipped into low organic gear and is sitting atop a stockpile of cash, the war chest itself a creation of optimism, inflated promises, and dare I say it, Irrational Exuberance. It’s a party and a playground. Fundamentals are for losers. Job experience is the enemy. Don’t be a downer.

As the JOBS Act begins to open the doors democratically to a new set of speculation-based investors—equity crowdfunding is the freshly cleared frontier—I hope they will do the hard work of learning to assess valuation before they write checks equal to 5% of their net worth or annual income. You’ll hear lots of stories about the next killer app, or the next levitating brick, and you may be lucky enough to be in the room with the next undiscovered wunderkind. But if the story that wunderkind is telling you has lots of math but no defensible revenue and profit realization, ask yourself, Where did he or she learn this math? Is it sustainable? Why hasn’t someone else with a lot more disposable income or risk capital taken this deal off the table if it is so good you can’t say no to it?

There’s always a bubble, and there’s always a bottom. The good news is that once you get past the moonshots, no one has yet figured out where the sky ends in its entirety. Boom and bust. Bust and boom. If you draw a trend line through a lifetime’s worth of data, pacing the erratic market highs and lows, the slope is still northbound.

I like that line a lot. That line protects me from worrying too much about a bubble.

Dear RadioShack

RadioShackGreetings, my fellow nerdy friends. I read with concern last week in the business press that you are closing as many as 1100 stores, following your well-received Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. You are not alone. Sears is closing stores. Staples is closing stores. Quiznos is closing stores. There seems to be plenty of commercial real estate coming on the market in all shapes and footprints. I wanted to write to you because I used to love the RadioShack brand, and I would hate to see it join the other tombstones in the Dead Brand Graveyard. You see, I was a bit of a geek as a kid, still sort of am, mowed a lot of lawns and bought my first CB Radio at RadioShack way back when, then used to love to hang out with the other geeks in the store.

So I wonder if the big-salary strategy teams sitting around the table in your headquarters this modern moment have asked themselves the following ten very personal questions:

1) When was the last time they shopped unprompted as a customer in a RadioShack?

2) What did they love about walking into the store?

3) What did they love about the shelf displays in the store?

4) What did they love about the merchandise on sale in the store?

5) What did they love about the staff in the store?

6) What was in the store that was unique, perfectly priced, or presented so well they couldn’t say no to it?

7) How much did they spend of their own money in the store?

8) Did they tell a friend about the experience and urge that friend to also visit the store?

9) When they got home, did they think, oh wow, I should have bought something else while I was there?

10) Are they actually excited about visiting that store again as soon as they can?

The reason I ask is, I never worked at a RadioShack, but I used to be able to answer every single one of these questions in the affirmative. I was a brand evangelist for RadioShack. I actually loved your brand.

At the moment I have no clue what it stands for, except every once in a while I need an obscure electronics plug or unusually shaped battery, and I drop by because you’re paying top dollar for a great location right between my bank and a sushi place I enjoy. If it pops in my head, sometimes I drop off a bucket of old batteries for you to recycle, and if you have the gizmo I need, I gladly fork over about $3 to $8. The guys at checkout always ask for my zip code for some reason, even though I know you know it, because you used to mail me a catalogue several times a year with cool stuff to come see and at least one great coupon offer, but no one there seems to know me after 40-plus years of stopping by. I’m glad you still have the little wired metal gizmos when I need them, and I wish I could spend more money while I was in the store, but there’s really nothing I need or can’t get online cheaper, and the guy behind the counter doesn’t seem to want to swap stories about weird-shaped neon mini bulbs anymore. I miss that guy, he was a geek like me.

You were once the Tandy Corporation, remember? You sold leather goods. Then you reinvented and became RadioShack, and we geeks thought it was a cool place to gather, kind of like Egghead, before they became rent-free NewEgg. You had the TRS-80 and knew how to load software on it! Are some of those geeks at your conference table? Do they love your brand the way we did–not like, but actually love? If they don’t, are they able to articulate what happened to the magic?  Because if they can’t, and they don’t want to go to RadioShack like a real customer, then why should I? I mean, sure, anyone can hire an agency to do a killer commercial, and you can love a commercial, but that’s not the same as loving a brand. It’s also not the same as a reason to go into your store.

I do believe you have to eat your own dogfood if you want someone else to give it a taste. That’s just me. Call me a simpleton without an MBA, but when I love a brand, and I have reason to recommit my loyalty to that brand time and again, price is only one part of my decision funnel. I want a brand that comes with a promise. What’s yours?

I won’t be writing this letter to Sears or Staples or Quiznos, although I do occasionally frequent those stores, but I did want to share my thoughts with you, because there was a time not long ago when you meant something to me. Like Borders. Like Tower Records. Like Blockbuster. Those old friends are no longer to be found. I wonder if the people sitting around the table in their final year loved their brands as much as their customers once did, or if they just ran spreadsheets and focus tests.

There’s a lot going on in a store; it’s a great laboratory for learning. When there’s nothing going on there at all, you can learn even more.

It all begins with a promise.

Signing off now, that’s a big 10-4.