ADHD EntrepreneurShiva, one of the primary deities of Hinduism, is described as the “destroyer and transformer” – and my ADHD experience has played that role in every aspect of my life  (see my post about ADHD and listening to Bruce Springsteen on my 50th birthday for more ). But the word Shiva, has its roots in the concepts of  “pervasiveness” and “embodiment of grace”. This, too, is part of my ADHD experience. ADHD has been Shiva in my life and career.

Throughout my career, I have wandered between employee, entrepreneur and consultant. It has not been a clear or direct path. In my personal life, I have had relationships that are terrible and wonderful. I am lucky enough to have found a wonderful partner who tolerates the friction that ADHD brings. She and I have built a life together that celebrates its success through the love we shower on our children and the support we give to one another. But ADHD is always there – everywhere I go, my engine of transformation leads me.

ADHD is the driving force in me becoming an entrepreneur. ADHD is the lightning bolt of crystal-clear solutions jumping into my brain fully-formed. These beautiful pictures that appear in my head are full of color and light. They are pure energy. They make sense. They are the transformer. They are coalesced and whole. It is the full connectedness of the idea that gives me the gumption to start a company, act on a vision, to know that I can solve this problem.

These gorgeous, pulsing perfect solutions in my head do make perfect sense in the moment. But as you follow the vision, the fully engaged perfection of the solution is like an impressionist painting. From afar, all of the pieces make sense. But as one dives into the guts of the idea, the vision disintegrates into colored blobs that wriggle, squirm and dart miraculously from one place to another. These electrons chase you with the promise of that single moment of perfect clarity, but remain ephemeral.

ADHD – The Transformer

The drive to do, the need for action makes the perfect idea-fueled concepts of motion and space a salve to the ADHD brain. In some way, the genius of ADHD seems uniquely American. In a country that rose from rebellion, and then followed its self-proclaimed manifest destiny, the urge to go and do and follow an ephemeral idea in many ways describes the genesis and endurance of the American mythology of self-determinism. In my younger days, I was fully captured by a poet, Charles Olson. In his essay on the nature and mechanics of poetry, Projective Verse, says that a poem “…always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!” For my ADHD brain, these shockingly clear ideas, these perceptions always move, instanter, towards the root of the problem that I want to solve.

The transformation happens as I chase the ideas from pictures to the electrons of its parts, to the mechanics of the thing to the action of doing. The entrepreneurial zeal continues as long as in each phase, in each deeper level of “instanter”, I get the endorphin boost that comes with the electric vision of these pictures in my mind. Now, to be fair, these marvelously clear insights that I have only seem perfect. They capture my imagination and I imbue them with the qualities of whole and complete. As I get closer to the idea, and it devolves, again, into the wriggling spermatozoa of impressionistic dots, I need to get the next jolt of the imperfect perfect vision. If I don’t get the next hit, if I never find the next rush, if I don’t find the next instanter, then the picture falls apart.

But when I can follow the insights, the endorphin rush, the electric visions of color, I create. I carve stories of the future from these crystal clear visions. I create relationships with customers and employees through the shared vision of possibilities. These images that appear like flickering neon are the spark that turn the primordial soup of problems into solutions. These images in my head feed my family, they create profit for my customers and create opportunities for my employees. They are Shiva, the transformer who takes the now and moves it instanter.

ADHD – The Destroyer

There are hundreds of days when the brilliant billboard of the perfect idea does not appear. As I dive into my fully-formed abstract world of geometric shapes that solve, into the world of colors of such amplitude that I can barely hear, and the crystalline images of the perfect idea start to reveal their organic imperfections, I start to sift and sort in a frenzied way looking for the next higher-resolution image.

When the next shock of understanding, the next needle-sharp bolt of insight, the INSTANTER doesn’t magically appear, I panic. Not externally, or even consciously, but my brain starts yelling for the next. It doesn’t matter what the next is, I just need the next. The trough that swallows my brain when the idea devolves, when it turns into colored blobs of paint rather than an Inness landscape, is a place of disconnected greys and browns. It has none of the beauty of vermillion and saffron that captivate my mind’s eye in my seemingly perfect solutions.

It is here, in this landscape of trudgery, where I cannot regularly find the energy to solve problems. I have no fuel, no instanter, no kinetic energy to expose a solution. In my ADHD experience, I fall into this monochromatic valley often. And it is here, where Shiva the destroyer emerges.

Let me explain this place to you a little better. It is the moment when the rollercoaster starts to slow. It is when your parents give you the 2-minute warning and you know that your time in the bouncy house is over. It is that moment when your total emotional and physical connection to your partner is interrupted by a ringing phone and the moment is lost. It is the silence that follows the last note of your favorite song. It is a place of disappointment. It is a place of frustration. It is a place of emptiness.

The world of business and families and work and responsibilities is a truly wonderful place. Relationships that sustain and processes that can support growth happen in the everyday. But the Shiva of ADHD, the now without the next, is a world that feels alone. When the reverie of abstract perfection and the instanter ends, the low-endorphin world of everyday seems harsh and isolating. In those moments, the ADHD brain is angry. It isn’t getting what it needs. Rather than solving the tedium, rather than making a commitment to working on the hard parts, ADHD can lead you on a chase.

The chase for the instanter, the need for the next jolt of kinetic thought can allow you to neglect details. In your business, it can be paperwork, or billing, or planning. These functional necessities are the machinery that drive the operations of a business. Creating a report for a client, or diving into the arcane details of healthcare coverage for your small business can feel as if they trap you in the valley of grey and brown. Or at home, paying bills, child care logistics, home maintenance, or simply pulling your head away from whatever is interesting right now to hear and listen to the story of your partner’s day can be daunting. It feels better to ignore the tedium of detail than to dive in deeply. Unless your are pulled into the details by the light of one of your lightning-infused crystalline visions, the details are detritus of some long-ago shipwreck. They are meaningless bits of information and responsibility from which it is impossible to create order. They are shapeless, amorphous handfuls of clay that hold no possibility of becoming something beautiful and intriguing.

This is Shiva the destroyer. This is ADHD creating chaos and destroying connections with the people who support you (customers, employees, families, loved ones…). The destruction of inattention, the despair of disconnectedness, is the flip side of your ADHD kinetic instanter.

The ADHD brain wants to move and experience. It is hungry for the next. Next is the enemy of now. Next is not a future now, it is a place that is always NOT HERE. ADHD the destroyer is never able to feel free of the constraints of the here and now. ADHD the destroyer pulls you away from your responsibilities and your connections. ADHD the destroyer leverages the pain and frustration of what you feel as boredom. But ADHD the destroyer actually disconnects you from that which sustains you. ADHD tells you that you are bored and restless, and that somewhere else there is the promise of true engagement. That is a lie. ADHD makes you feel alone. You are alone in that moment of unattached frustration. There is no one else the trough of grey.

ADHD – The Kinetic Sustainer (aka The Embodiment of Grace)

These two worlds, the endorphin-filled world of perfect ideas and the world of near-painful faux boredom, can swirl around each other rapidly. It is the never ending dance between enthrall and despair that can be so mysterious to the non-ADHD observer. It can cycle in a month, or a day, or a minute, or a second. It is the engine that makes the ADHD go. It is the two stars that circle around each other faster and faster as they collapse into one another. ADHD is the oscillation before fusion.

In some ways, it makes sense. The kinesis that is ADHD demands motion of body, spirit and thought. It makes perfect sense to me that ADHD has its own perpetual motion, its own vibration, its own music on which it feeds. As you dive from the imperfect heights of emotional and intellectual reverie to an imagined valley of disconnected isolation, you undoubtedly create a kinetic energy as you transfer from a high potential energy state to a lower one. The momentum of that release, like an orbit around your life, takes you from high to low and powers you again to a state of engagement with your life, mind and spirit.

But there is a secret that is has taken me a long time to learn, and that I can never remember fully in the moment. When you are in the grey valley, it is never for long. Your intrinsic need for kinetic motion or thought will pull you out of the dark – and in my experience, it always does. In the moment, the the valley of grey hurts, and then you are flooded with relief that the beautiful distant perfection of instanter is hurtling closer and closer to you. But it is in this transition, ADHD Shiva gives you the grace to extend the beautiful ribbons of mental and emotional connectedness, those parts of you and your experience that truly add the color to the brilliant shapes in your mind. It is in that transition, that you can reconnect with your passion and your nourishment, you touch again the ideas and the people that help you create the energy to rekindle your light.

For those of you who struggle with your ADHD, remember that it destroys and transforms. That is a cycle that is so old, the chaos that is so necessary that you will never tame it fully. (Take your meds – that helps.) But remember in the transformation and destruction driven by your biological need for the instanter, there is a beautiful moment of grace, where you are in the perfect moment of stasis. You are neither transforming or destroying, but in that moment, you have blossomed, fully. You can remember details of your cathedral-sized idea, you are fully present in your life. You do love fully, and feel love fully. You are at the pinnacle of your powers and creativeness because you are present. This is when you create and build and succeed. Because you are on a never-ending journey from reverie to disconnect, when you feel the moment, celebrate it fully. It will come again, because you create that moment. When you recognize the grace of your transition, the power that it creates, you can learn to feel the moment of stasis coming and you can slow your transition. It is in controlling your journey from transformer to destroyer that you can create a life and business that is powerful, engaged and fulfilling. I get closer and closer every day.

This entire diatribe might be a beautiful titian-colored construct of insight, or it could be an honest account of the pervasiveness of ADHD’s transformation, destruction and grace. I’ll let you know the next time I pass through the valley.

This morning, I had a few minutes after dropping my son off to drive, alone, on a sterling summer day. I put the top down on my wife’s little Fiat, and asked Siri to play some Bruce Springsteen.

So there I was, sun shining, what is left of my hair blowing in the breeze, listening to the songs that fueled my teenage years, and I became suddenly aware of 50. If you set aside the comically trite archetype of a middle aged guy in a convertible listening to music a little too loudly (though my own banality amused me greatly at the time), I was having a moment – one of those air-quote moments that feels so important. So I am just going to roll with its importance for a few minutes – bear with me – and if you need to bail, I understand. This little diatribe might turn, sadly, into pretentious drivel.

So here is a flashback – I am 14 or 15 – it is late at night, and Bruce Springsteen’s The River is blasting through the cheapest headphones ever made. In that moment, I am transported to a working class town, full of rage, longing and nostalgia for times yet to happen. In that world, one conjured as if it were the love child of Faulkner and Hemingway raised by Brando’s sneer, there was a powerful sense of inevitability. For your 18th birthday, you would get a “union card and a wedding coat”*. Life was a dead end, unless there was an escape, a renouncement, an act of defiance…

My world was so different. I was a prep school kid, surrounded by privilege and seemingly limitless possibilities. I was aware of the distance between my life and those songs, but once the music started, that all faded. I was a Bruce Springsteen song.  My family was complicated – stained by irrationality and anger. We were, like so many others, picket fences on the outside and landmines on the inside. But in that music, in Springsteen’s songs of purgatory and redemption, I heard a voice that spoke directly to me.

That night, my father, in one of his characteristic rages, came into my bedroom and ripped the headphones off of my head and screamed at me, “What the holy hell did I think I was doing? Turn off that shitty music and get to sleep.” In the process of ripping off the headphones, he pulled the record player onto the floor – he scratched Disc 1 of The River (my favorite album) so it no longer played.

I don’t remember what his issue was with me that night – nor could I tell you why my father raged at me consistently over the years. But the messages he sent were clear – that I wasn’t living up to what he wanted. His rage and disappointment burrowed inside of me. It blossomed into my own outrage. Who was he to make me feel like he did? In my head, I would imagine killing him and finally setting my family free from his impetuous rage. I had a theatre of redemptive victory constantly playing in my head.

But that was “…a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing…” ** My anger, my outrage at being misunderstood, my outrage at being held back or down, my outrage at being judged, my outrage at not leading some life that I considered to be authentic, was like music in the air – ephemeral. It was there and real, but not tangible. My anger at being the symbol of my parents worth had no roots, my outrage had no structure or shape, so it had no power. It simply floated away. But like a wailing Clarence Clemon’s sax riff, my anger reverberated, and I played that discord again and again. It fueled me, but I could never grab it and hold it. It never became a tool that I could use. I had no act of rebellion, I had no escape.

I wanted to be something real. I wanted to stand for something. I wanted to count. I never felt as if I did.

Somewhere along the way, I adopted my father’s view of me. I wasn’t good enough – never living up to my “potential”. The disconnect between who I was and who I thought I should be was a clanging, discordant sound I played over and over in my head. Like the scratch on Disc 1, it interrupted the music of my life.  I spent years being defensive and fragile – detritus from my childhood – and I spent years trying to master skills to which I am poorly suited simply because they matched this fake vision of whom I should be. There was an inevitability to my life. It wasn’t ever going to work because I was very poorly matched with my adopted self-vision. I felt trapped in my life. The outrage of my teens became the inrage of my adult life.

…is a dream a lie that don’t come true,  or is it something worse…”***

That sense of being trapped lasted for years. I wasn’t ever trapped by the people around me. It was never the pressure of parenting or being a husband or the struggles of growing a family that made me feel trapped. It was the disconnect between flawed vision of myself and my faulty understanding of whom I thought I should be. I was hugely, and seemingly forever, angry at myself. At every turn, I felt that I matched my father’s expectations of disappointment. I consistently failed to achieve his definitions that became had become mine. I carried failure with me everywhere.

I am pretty open about my ADHD. (BTW, for any that don’t believe that it exists, you are wrong.) ADHD is everywhere in my life, from reading a book to being present with my family. When you have ADHD, you sometimes can’t make simple things work – promises, intentions, plans. All of those small failures can coalesce into a perfect accelerant – ADHD added gasoline to my inrage fire. I could imagine a brilliant future, and create a map to get there, but I could never fully pack for the journey. Part of ADHD makes you barely able to function as an independent adult and part of it makes you a superhero. For the vast majority of my life, it was the former, and never the cool cape-wearing part.

But through the unwavering love of my wife, the delicious love of my children and friends, and through true and deep understanding of my ADHD**** and it’s pervasive role in amplifying that disconnect between self, self-image and adopted self images, I find myself in a place where outrage is replaced with optimism (despite the Trump presidency) and inrage is replaced with joy.

This morning, the sun and the wind mixed with Springsteen was an intoxicant for sure, but it allowed me to articulate something clearly to myself. Maybe it is from the august perch of middle age, or maybe it is just because my beard is more grey than brown, but now, I am comfortable in my own skin – and I can feel that cape flowing behind me, truly, for the 1st time. I have no value-laden vision of where I want to go, or whom I should be in order to get there. I just know that I am on a journey.

To my truest traveling companion, my gratitude is immeasurable. It is because of you and your love that I have all with which I am blessed.

My goal is now to continue this journey, and I want to mark the miles and years traveled and yet to be traveled with true, continuing measures of appreciation for those with whom I walk. Regardless if we are together for decades or only a few days, each one of those steps we share helps me  know and celebrate you. Just as importantly, it helps me know and learn to celebrate myself. For the rest of the journey, I want to use my resources to help any that travel alongside – the journey is best when fully shared, “…cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run…”*****

I am suddenly aware of 50 – and I like it.

 

Footnotes:

* & *** Bruce Springsteen “The River”

** Shakespeare, “MacBeth”

**** If you need ADHD resources, check out Ned Hallowell’s books, The Hallowell Center, or videos by Dr. Russell Barkley – or get in touch – happy to talk.

***** OK, if you need this citation, I am sad for you, but here it is – Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

So, chain retailers are closing up shop as an alarming rate. Just last week, Sears announced it was closing more stores, and Claire’s once the per sq ft profit leader in mall-based retailing filed for bankruptcy. This week, post-bankruptcy, Gymboree announced it is shutting 350 stores.

store closing retailpocaplyse

What in tarnation is going on here? Is this seriously all Amazon’s fault?

  1. The fall of mall based retail is based on a couple of things. First, media consumption has changed dramatically. In the mall heyday (80s-90s), retail media was largely driven by local media advertising (TV, radio, print). In that paradigm, anchor stores (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Sears, etc.) were able to capture a huge share of consumer attention and shape their product desires. The anchor would advertise, drive foot-traffic, and all of the stores in the mall benefitted. Media today has changed – it is no longer possible for an anchor to own a market. Consequently, anchors can have less influence in the media market and can compel less traffic. That hurts the overall mall experience because the smaller stores suffer disproportionately.
  2. Big box retail (stand-alone stores like Best Buy) are predicated on a prolonged suburban flight. Their sense of “destination shopping” was built up around bigger and better homeownership (more rooms = more stuff to buy). The flight away from cities has slowed dramatically. More families are staying in or very near cities where the concept of a “big box” store is not feasible due to both space and cost constraints.
  3. E-Commerce has been a huge factor, but it isn’t determinative. Let’s assume that 10% of all retail is e-commerce. Further, let’s assume that half of that (5%) belongs to Amazon. 1% goes to online only retailers (Wayfair, etc.). The remainder is traditional retail moved online. So, 6% has moved completely away from traditional retail – the market may have shrunk, relatively speaking, for traditional retail. But that is a 6% decline in 15 years (since e-commerce became “a thing”), but again, that is relative because overall, retail grows 1-3% annually. So, at worst, the relative retail market is 94% as big as it was pre-ecommerce, and at best, it is a wash and the relative market is flat for the last 15 years.
  4. The reason why e-commerce isn’t determinative lies in the nature of what has been keeping chain retail afloat for a long time – private equity. From Staples recently selling to Sycamore Partners to a thousand other retail stories, retail has been propped up by private equity. Those kinds of purchases are usually highly-leveraged (meaning that there is a lot of debt to be paid). The debt service required in these kinds of transactions puts huge strain on a companies cashflow. In times of strong growth, it is not an issue. But economic growth has been at a crawl since 2008, therefore debt-fueled expansion has been treacherous. And for most retailers, margins are very skinny. So with little pricing power, most retailers have seen declining margins, slower growth and fixed debt service. This is NOT a recipe for success.
  5. The retail experience is lousy. As companies fight through those rising fixed costs (real estate, etc.) and declining margins, they have deprecated the on-floor retail experience. In an effort to streamline costs and operations, retail has kept pay to a minimum and at the same time diminished the autonomy of the job. Therefore, retail is filled with poorly paid workers who are forced to stay inside a very small box. Here is a news flash – nobody wants that job, so the only people who take that job are those who have the fewest options. Therefore the quality of the retail experience declines rapidly. And to be clear, it is not the fault of the employees, but rather the system in which they work.  But ultimately, shoppers do not respond well to terrible experiences and they vote with their dollars.
  6. UPS & FedEx (as well as the huge leaps forward in flat-pack technologies meaning more things can be shipped) have become dramatically better at logistics, and relative costs (dollars per pound shipped) have dwindled. Superior delivery logistics have enhanced the e-commerce experience to the point where practically anything can be at your doorstep in 2 days or less from dozens of sellers. Consequently, we see fewer consumers willing to put up with terrible retail experiences when they can get their desired products with a modicum of inconvenience.
  7. Younger consumers are different. Since younger consumers (those >45) have a lifetime of digital media consumption, they respond to different stimuli. The Macy’s 1-Day sale strategy where Macy’s could own the discussion, as we talked about in #1, is over. But today’s consumer is more influenced by non-advertising influences than ever before. When I was young, MTV was a huge product demand driver. But even that was fairly centralized. With media consumption widely dispersed, even an ardent watcher of broadcast television with its 16-20 minutes of every hour chock full of ads likely sees more non-advertising driven influences every day. From YouTube celebrities to Instagram feeds to the obscure interest-driven discussion forum, consumers are bombarded with more and varied influences to shape their purchase desires. Therefore, their retail dollars are more dispersed. They spend in more places and across more brands than ever before. The traditional mall-based or specialty retailer cannot stock a wide enough selection to accommodate the widely influenced product desires of a non-mainstream media audience. This diminishes the power that larger retail brands have in the marketplace.
  8. 2008 happened. The housing market crashed. Real wages declined. Credit became tighter. And almost a decade later, we are still talking about economic recovery. 2008, for a small percentage of the population, drove real and meaningful change in the buying habits of Americans. Add that to poor job growth in the low end of the white collar world and the increased debt faced by those with student loans, and we have a portion of the population with less disposable income than before. While the impact of those consumers may not dramatically reshape the market, it will have pockets of dramatic impact. If we also consider that birth rates in the US have dropped in the last decade, there is a portion of the younger workforce who are, in real terms, poorer than ever, and they are having fewer children. Spending on children is a huge economic driver. Fewer babies to people with fewer means results in fewer purchases.
  9. We are busier now than ever before. In the US, we work longer hours, take fewer vacations and feel more stressed than ever. Regardless if true, we feel more time pressure than ever before, therefore we are less likely to view shopping as a regular leisure activity. If it doesn’t feel fun to go shopping at a mall or a store, we are just less likely to do it.
  10. The world of digital has reshaped entertainment. While anecdotal, see if this story doesn’t ring true. Kids used to play with toys. After a while, toys would get dull and they would get replaced. However, phones and tablets, in many ways, have replaced a portion of the toy spectrum. Rather than purchasing a $15 game, or a $30 toy, my kids spend $0.99 on a new app. That take dollars away from retail and slides them into the pockets of Apple, Google & Amazon (and developers) rather than to the cash registers at Target, ToysRUs or others. We have replaced physical stuff, to some extent, with digital stuff. And while the impact might be small, it adds to the issues of slow growth and rising costs for retailers (from #4).

Whew.

A day or two ago, I was trimming my beard. It isn’t an unusual thing.

As I worked to tame the gray hairs that have a growth plan that they haven’t seen fit to share with me yet, I had one of those thoughts that can only happen when your are by yourself, working through a thoughtless task – Why am I spending so much time working on the fine details of my hirsute chin?

I don’t enjoy it. I don’t think I do it very well. In fact, Stephanie at StephanieLouis Salon always humors me and tells me I am getting better at it every time I get my haircut. The only time I ever really see my face is the two times a day when I am brushing my teeth. I never comb my hair, and when I shave, the shower mirror doesn’t catch my whole face. The state of my beard is almost comically unimportant to my daily life.

But I worry about my beard. I run my hands along it a dozen times a day and think that I need to deal with this mess. When I see myself in the mirror, I am almost always shocked when I see my beard, not because it is unkempt, but rather I forget that I have a beard. My face doesn’t look on the outside the way it looks on the inside. On the inside, I look the way I did in high school or college – clean-shaven, 30(?) pounds lighter, 30 years younger.

But my face shows a different version of me to you – an adult version of me. It is this hairy, wrinkled face I share with you every day. It is the face that my children see when I tell them I am proud of them. It is the face that I share with my clients and and colleagues when they look for advice or collaboration. It is the face that my wife sees when we face challenges and joys.

This adult face isn’t a mask. It is me. It carries in it all of the times that I have succeeded and failed. It carries all of my pride and shame. It carries all of my love and apathy. It carries all of my joy and sorrow. It carries you in it, too.

The times I see your version of my face, I am always surprised – sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not. However, I wear it happily, because it is your face. It is the face that you and I created together. It is the map of my life.

The version of my face that I carry on the inside looks at all of you with awe. You are accomplished and striving. You are joyful and despondent. You are loved and alone. My face loves your face.

I trim my beard because it belongs to you.

 

 

It has been a long time since I’ve blogged here – I’ve been busy with AdChemix and my sales and marketing blog, Selling to The C, as well as distributed blogging forms like Medium. But it is time to get back here – under my own name.

Look for more content starting soon.

When I wake up in the morning, in those precious few moments before the day begins, before my coffee has circulated all the way to my brain, I get a chance to think. I think about my kids, my wife, our house, and so on. And then, before the day bolts ahead, I think, for just a moment or two, about my company, Adchemix.

Honestly, I think about my company all the time. But in these quiet moments, I think about how I feel about my creation. The rest of the time, I am on a relentless prowl for growth, money, solutions, talent and so on… But in the silent moments, when I get to examine how I feel about Adchemix, I stumble on the right words to describe my state. Primarily, I am just excited. We’ve all seen kids jumping up and down with excitement as the parade prepares to march past. That is how I feel all the time about the solutions that we are creating, and the problems we are solving. This is just fun. The future as always racing closer, and it is full of opportunity and excitement. So, I am just jumping up and down, because I know what is going to happen next, and I can’t wait.

But there is more. It isn’t all fun and games. Building a business is hard. There are financial sacrifices, emotional turmoil, indecision, the never-ending sales process (see my post, Chief Selling Officer), and the constant quest for what is just over the next hill. It is hard work. Still exciting, but hard. There is another feeling that comes along for the ride with excitement – it is the inverse – there is a lot of terror in building a business. The media celebrates entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs are always killing it, crushing it, and whatever other silly words we use to say that we are being successful before we really are… But inside of every builder, of every maker, of every startup founder, there is real terror. Did I make the right choice? Is this the right technology? Is this the right hire? Can we make payroll? Are we going to get fired by our biggest client? Am I smart enough to be the CEO? Am I going to let everybody down?

So, the feeling is excitrified. Excited and terrified. In that moment before the day accelerates, I let myself feel it all. The terror tamps down the excitement so you can make smart choices. The excitement pulls you out of the mental fetal position that the terror can put you in. I love being excitrified. It makes me more alive.

So, there seems to be a theme of me telling people they are wrong in this blog (see here and here and an angry rant). So maybe it is just the nature of an opinion-based blog to do this, but Conductor, the really great SEO tool company, has got it all wrong with their “Break The Addiction to Paid Media” campaign (Hey, guys, you are welcome for the link, BTW.)

Conductor has a new spin on SEO, suggesting that it is no longer about search rankings or keywords, but rather it is “Web Presence Optimization”, using advanced SEO techniques to expose content that appeals to specific “personas” and that will allow consumers to engage better with your content. Apparently Conductor, unknowingly, has been trapped in the world of 1999 SEO where organic search presence was full of doorway pages, skinny content pages and poor results. Web presence optimization, in Conductor’s parlance, is this new approach of creating great content to appeal to different segments of your potential customer base at different points along the purchase or engagement funnel. That sounds AWESOME.

But, hey, isn’t that called marketing?

Marketing is the act of trying to influence a targeted group of people to do what you want. In order to do that, you create compelling content, and gain visibility for it. Conductor is making a strong separation between the value of earned media (i.e., SEO and Social) vs paid media (paid search, social advertising, etc.). They say that paid media is “rented presence” whereas Conductor shaped content is “earned presence”. This is like saying junk mail sent via First Class is somehow more worthy that that sent by bulk rate. Is there a real difference between paying for advertising and creating content that is algorithmically-favored by Google or Facebook? It just changes who you pay, right? SEO, Social, Paid Search – it is ALL advertising! Native ads, advertorials, links, testimonials, retargeting, pop-ups, pop-unders – it is ALL advertising. (By the way, this blog post is a form of advertising, too. I want you to think that I know what the hell I am talking about so that you will hire my company Adchemix, or ask me to speak at a conference, or simply gratify my ego by asking my advice.)

Retargeting From Conductor

Retargeting From Conductor

This blog post is an example of earned media. I have earned any visibility that I get from it because I spent the time to think, write, and hit the publish button. Conductor earned the right to their visibility by coming up with the catchy approach. But then they reinforce their right to visibility with PAID ADVERTISING. OMG.

So, there is no real difference between paid and earned media. It is all media. It is all marketing, and Conductor is trying to influence you to buy their product – that helps you create and promote algorithmically favored content. C’mon guys, you can’t BS a BS’er. Get off your high horse. It’s all advertising, regardless of how you spin it..

I got some new business cards recently. They are nice, if not a little anachronistic. I have 1000 of them. I rarely hand them out. But, my kids are enjoying playing with them. My 11 year old picked one up, and said, “You are the CEO. Does that mean, like, you are the boss?” T responded, “Yeah, Q,  that does mean that I am the boss.”

But as I started to reflect on what I really do as the CEO of Adchemix, I am totally not “the boss” in that captain of industry, autocratic way my son might think. I might change my title, at least in my own head, from Chief Executive Officer, to Chief SELLING Officer. Because what I really do all day is sell.

SALES TARGETS

I have a lot of sales targets. I don’t track them in Salesforce or anything. The most important selling I do happens pretty close to home:

  1. ME: My first sales target was (and continues to be) me. I started with selling myself on starting a company. In some respects, convincing myself that I should was easy. But if you look into the eyes of any founder, you look into the soul of their very best sales target. Regardless of how convinced they are that their idea is phenomenal, every day they have to sell themselves on the idea that they are the one to lead the charge. Trust me, they all do it, every day. Wake up, convince yourself that you deserve another day at the helm, and start kicking some ass. Selling yourself is really hard. You carry baggage, you carry fear, you carry responsibilities, you carry dreams – that sale needs to be made each and every day.
  2. SAM: Then I needed to sell my co-founder on the idea of jumping in on my concept. That was a hard sale. Not because Sam was unwilling or overly cautious, but because I needed to sell him on the idea that I was the right partner, with the right idea at the right time. Now, honestly, entrepreneurs are a pretty optimistic bunch, and consequently, I think we are pretty easily sold. We see opportunity everywhere. Sam was no different. But that is a sale that took gumption on my part and faith on his. The difficult thing about this sale is that it never ends. Every day, I need to re-close this sale, and Sam has to sign up again. We are going on on our 372nd sale. So far, so good.
  3. SPOUSE: This, too, is a sale that needs to be made every day. I need to be able to look at my wife and convince her that this is the right path. She needs to understand that this dream of mine is a dream for us. I think the entreprenuer’s spouse or significant other shares our optimistic outlook. When I tell her that revenue is headed up, she believes me. But regardless of her willingness to be part of this process, I need to continually reinforce the value proposition of the unstable nature of startups. Now, honestly,  my wife is as big a part of Adchemix as anyone, and her buy-in is really high, but everyday, I feel like I need to prove the value of what we are doing.
  4. COMPANY: Yeah, this sounds funny, but you need to sell your own company to your own employees every day. You need to sell the mission, the tactics, the direction, the fun, the joy, the fear…You need to sell it every day to everyone who relies on you to feed their families. This is your most important audience. Because without their buy in, your company fails. Your employees are your MOST important audience every day.
  5. CUSTOMERS: This is pretty obvious, but you need to sell customers to get business, and also to keep business heading in the right direction. Lots of folks talk about this, but as an entrepreneur, you should know that no business is ever safe. You need to reinforce your value proposition to your clients every single time you speak with them.
  6. INVESTORS/BANKERS: This is an easy one. They have the money. You need to sell them on your business, its potential, and YOU.

So, that is what I do all day. And while I might sell like a boss, the CEO isn’t the boss – the CEO is in charge of selling – at least this one is…

            “Obviously, you don’t know much about adventure.” – Cervantes, Don Quixote

 

I had a really good job at a fabulous e-commerce company. Everyday was an exercise in managing runaway growth and creating process. I had a wonderful boss (really, a total peach of a guy – Hi Mike!), got a good paycheck, had great benefits, wonderful co-workers, free snacks, and a great downtown office. Life was good.

 

Then, one day, my wife asked me a simple question, “Hey, how was your day?”And before I knew it, it all tumbled out of my mouth. I was far enough from the C-level where I felt vaguely emasculated. I commuted on a train, I walked into a sterile high-rise office building, As soon as I hit the elevator button, I stopped thinking about my job. In short, I had become somebody that I never expected to be – I was an employee. But I have 5 kids, two mortgages, car payments, horseback riding lessons, college to pay for and more! I couldn’t give up the employee life. I am a responsible adult. I was doing what adults do. They trade their time for money to support those that they love. That is the smart thing to do.

 

It was that day, that I gave myself 7 Reasons To Not Start a Company.

 

  1. Money: Forget about WhatsApp being acquired for $19B, or Oculus Rift going from Kickstarter to $2B acquisition, startups aren’t about money. In fact, according to the Washington Post, about 50% of businesses have closed their doors after 5 years, and over 70% after 10. My father worked for the local power utility for 42 years. Betting your financial health on something that has a 70% chance of ceasing to exist in a decade is a sucker’s bet.
  2. OPM: During the first dot com boom, the goal was to always play with OPM (Other People’s Money). And that is easy, right? Throw together a pitch deck, pop up at a few angel groups, and pretty soon you’ve got a 7-figure bankroll to play with. Easy peasy, no? I was at an IEEE event this week, and I learned that Harvard accepted 5.8% of of its applicants in 2013. Two investor groups (an angel investment group and an early stage VC) shared their 2013 acceptance rates:

   Firm 1: Saw 238 company pitches. Funded 3. (1.26% chance of success.)

   Firm 2: Saw 1300 company pitches. Funded 30. (2.3% chance of success.)

  1. I Want To Work For Myself: That is the dream, isn’t it? To work for oneself, to be the captain of one’s own ship? It is very American, very “Manifest Destiny”, very Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. But when you run a company, you work for your customers, you work for your employees, you work for your investors, you work for your family. You work for everyone except you. You may be the captain of your own ship, but you are subject to the wind and waves of everyone who is not you.
  2. Life/Work Balance: I have said for years that 2 weeks of vacation isn’t enough. Millions of people in America break their backs for those 14 days of freedom. When you work for yourself, when it is your company, you can spend August at the beach, and take off from Christmas to MLK Day, right? After all it is your company. Guess what happens when you take off for a month? The whole thing grinds to a halt. Decisions don’t get made, business isn’t landed, and your dream floats out with the August tides.
  3. I Really Want To Focus On What I Love: That is admirable. But being an entrepreneur isn’t an exercise in focus, it is in an exercise is keeping everything moving in the right direction until it all magically works. When you run your own business, you end up focusing on things like payroll and tax nexus, HR policies and cap tables, local labor laws and the machinations of regulatory bodies, none of which drive the thing you love. Starting a company often means that you work for the business, not in the business.
  4. I Don’t Want To Deal With: Maybe it is office politics, or selling, or corporate bureaucracy, or whatever. When I start my business, we aren’t going to have THAT. Well, guess what, you are going to have it, or something like it. Those kinds of things that you rail against, you will invent different versions of them. You might not see them immediately, but the folks that work with you will. Organizations are full of compromise and conflict, and, inevitably, your company will have that too.
  5. Finally, I Will Be Able To: Work at home, see my kids, choose my own hours, and so on. Yeah you can do all that but the tradeoffs in stress and sleepless nights isn’t worthwhile. Starting a company isn’t fun, it is work. Really hard, stressful work that obeys no timetable.

 

So that was it. Those 7 rules saved me. They helped clarify my thinking. Those 7 rules lead me down the right path – towards the next rule.

 

RULE 7.5: Screw it. Starting a business is awesome

Dear Red Sox,

Thanks. That was an amazing season. It was thrilling, it was fun, and it was gritty. I will let all the sportswriters make comparisons and parallels to teams past and discuss personalities current. But I want to focus on a single, quiet moment that happened last night while champagne was being sprayed all about the Fens.

My dear 11 year old son, who had just run up and down the chilly street in his pajamas because his joy no longer fit inside his frame, was lying on the couch, basking in the glow of his team’s victory. I put my hand on his head, and I felt him settle into the fatigue that he earned with many late nights and the relief of victory .

For that one, small moment, I was truly connected to him in a new way. We basked in the glow of the team that we follow, that we share, that we treasure. Now, he was alive in 2004 and 2007 for Red Sox victories, but he is, sadly, too young to remember them well. So, those moments belong to me. But 2013 belongs to us. I never got to share this kind of moment with my own father. Despite the fact that my own paternal relationship was really complicated, we missed the opportunity for this simple joy. Maybe it was the Curse or bad luck, but our beloved BoSox never reached these peaks of success while he was alive. Because of the complications, if my father and I had ever had the chance to share this kind of joy, the connection would have frayed by the time the revelers left Kenmore Square. But this moment, with my dear boy, will last.

So, all I can say is thank you. It was a great season, and this victory is a touchstone that my son and I can share forever.

 

Gratefully,

T