Thursday, October 30, 2014

Education and Employment

Did you ever go to make easy dinner for two, only to find that, three hours later, you’ve dirtied every single pot, pan and utensil in the kitchen, there’s a splotch of sauce on the ceiling, and supper isn’t ready yet?

This blog post came out that way.

Revisiting a letter I received from my friend JQ recently, a friend commented that she had gone back to school.  She was nearing graduation, and was receiving her bachelor’s degree.  She didn’t try to make an explicit connection between education and employment, but some implication was made…that compared with her pre-graduation status, she should be more eligible for quality employment after she graduates.

I meant to write a simple but thought-provoking rumination on the link, if there exists one, between education and employment.  And all of a sudden, things got hella murky like the ingredient list on a pack of store brand hot dogs.  What was formerly one tidy question: “is there a relationship between education and quality employment” promptly spawned no fewer than 5 questions:

  1. Is there a difference between a vocational degree and a liberal arts degree?
  2. Is there any connection between an arts degree and employment?
  3. SHOULD there be any connection between an arts degree and employment?
  4. If the answer to Q3 is NO, what is the point of an arts degree?
  5. How does ANY of this relate to small business?

Well, I’m glad we straightened that all out.

Or not.

Questions 1 and 2 go tomorrow.  More after that.  Yep.  Just like always.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What You're Looking For

I received a card in the mail this past week from a friend who used to run her own small coffee business.  She got out years ago to pursue other interests.  But this week, she writes:

I am in the middle of a career struggle

[I am] wondering why I ever left the business.  I attempted to apply for other coffee jobs with [insert two large coffee company names here].  They all wanted bachelors degrees and more years of direct distribution.  My passion and life skills were not enough for them

We all work for a variety of reasons.  As Sigmund Freud so aptly put it, "love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness".  I think our approach to work, like so many other human endeavors, is an onion: there are layers upon layers of need.
In America, the most obvious and socially sanctioned reason to work is for financial gain.  We work for money.  But beyond financial need, I have found that entrepreneurs are often searching for validation.  In the entrepreneurial mindset, success in business acts as a salve for unrelated afflictions of self-doubt.  The failures of small business are personal, but the triumphs are equally personal. 

For instance, I am the only member of my family without a graduate degree.  I am entirely unqualified for ANY job that ANY of my brothers or parents might have held.  And thus Kaladi Coffee: I engineered (and lucked) my way into a job that is meaningful to me.  Like everyone else, I have waded through perilous trenches, but I have managed to get what I need without having to jump certain hoops that I thought were demeaning, extraneous, and arbitrary.  I feel validated becauseI have managed to get by without having to comply with forces I don't respect.

Where I got very lucky was with regard to profitability.  Small business is often not terribly profitable.  Some small businesses go broke soon after opening.  But many, many more straggle on for years with the principals earning what amounts to six dollars an hour for for all their worry and effort.

Thus some people migrate from entrepreneurship to work with a larger employer.  We forego the fulfillment of many personal satisfactions in order to satisfy overwhelming financial need.

The problem is that, for many of us,  the validation serum administered by employment at a big company is less potent than the the stuff we get when we work for ourselves. It's like being fed peanuts instead of pork chops: peanuts will nourish you, but they won't make you feel like a satiated carnivore.

So I guess my first question for this friend is "what needs are you trying to fill"?  And, since we live in an imperfect world, we should ask that question's corollary: "must all of your needs be filled in one place"?

Are you searching for a job, or are you searching for something more?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beware the Slippery Slope: The Cost of Control

In some things, I am a great fan of excess: if a little is good, more is better, and too much is just right.  All parties are mediocre until someone requires stitches, or the nice guys in blue show up to shut the event down.  And ask you to put on a towel.

With that said, I think there are a lot of dangerous Slippery Slopes…issues that we can pursue further and further with no productive end.  Most are Good Things, at least in the beginning.  Cleanliness is a great example.  There can be no argument that it is better to have clean floors than dirty floors.  But how clean is an “ideally clean floor”?  Are “sanitary” floors better than floors that are just “clean”?  And if they are, are sterile floors better than those that are simply “sanitary”?  And if there is a logarithmically rising expense associated with achieving loftier degrees of cleanliness, how does that cost figure into determining what degree of cleanliness is "best"?

If you’re running a company that makes integrated circuits, dramatic extremes of dust-freedom and sterility may very well be the way to go.  But for the rest of us, an unhealthy inclination toward cleanliness in the extreme will be a burden to business.  Or, as anyone familiar with Obsessive Compulsive Disorders can testify, an unhealthy inclination toward cleanliness in the extreme can become a burden to life itself.

Another slippery slope is control. 

No control: not good.  Some control?  Most often an improvement.  But where does the quest for control cease to be a blessing and begin to be a problem?  Alternatively, how much chaos is actually helpful?

When I was a kid, we watched public television and listened FM radio (I can still smell the Bakelite and vacuum tubes…).  Beyond station selection, though, we had no control over content in either medium.  If I listened to ten songs on the radio, I probably thought six were OK, three were terrible, and one was great.  So by allowing a large volume of music though my aural baleen over time, I discovered new and sometimes radically different things that I came to love.

The process of discovering radically new things might be called “growing up”.

Today’s media selections offer a greater degree of control.  We can have our DVR snatch shows from around the globe to build video libraries of our own choice.  We find Futurama because Netflix knows we liked The Simpsons.  We are introduced to Madeline Peyroux because Pandora thinks she sounds like (young, white, sanitized) Billie Holliday.

But how are we to discover anything fundamentally different?  When is the Metallica fan going to hear her first Coltrane ballad and discover she loves jazz?  How will the documentary fanatic discover Archer and discover that he’s not a hopeless nerd?

How do your control habits affect the well-being of your business?   And how might your control habits hold your company back?

Friday, October 18, 2013

This Is The End

No, alas, I'm not going to try to one-up the Rogen/Goldberg movie.  Their budget is bigger than mine.

I did see another movie this week: "The Art of The Steal" by Don Argott.  Though not a business themed movie in any traditional sense, it conjures up the issue of legacy in a way that is both poignant and directly relatable to small business.

Argott's story is a recounting of how Albert Barnes amassed what is arguably the world's finest collection of post impressionist art, and then sought to own/protect it indefinitely via a carefully constructed will. Barnes' eye for art was impeccable.  His desire to preserve the collection for educational purposes was noble.  Moreover, Barnes' right to direct the future of his property was unquestionable: the collection was his.  He paid for it in cash.

But like Icarus, Barnes' success-inflated ego made for a fall whose height was not only matched but defined by the scope, magnitude, and value of his collection.  As Argott tells the story (in tragic tones), fifty years after Barnes' passing, a group of wealthy art-oriented business people managed to ride roughshod over Barnes' will and repurpose his art collection, now worth an estimated 25 billion dollars.

The point Argott makes is that Barnes' collection was stolen from him.  From a legal perspective, that conclusion is inescapable.  But the Dark Side of that judgement, discussed nowhere, is that perhaps Barnes' desire to control the living from beyond his grave was a leap of ego-fueled delusion...that legacy is controllable only for so long.  Adding insult to injury, I think there may be evidence that the grander one's legacy, the more rapid and more certain it is to succumb.

We are here, and then we are gone.  To spend our days and energies shaping lives of beauty is a uniquely human path.  Our sense of meaning drives our energies.  We build families.  We build friendships.  We build homes.  We amass art collections. We build businesses.  We build nations.  When we lie on our deathbeds, I would imagine, we take comfort in what we have done with our lives.  Our accomplishments are evidence of our participation in the human endeavor...that we have wrung meaning out of the mysterious void around us.

But the flip side of humanity's beauty  is that, by definition, it ends.  Like Andrew Moore's (beautiful and highly recommended) photographs of  industrial decay in Dearborn, Michigan, we should be reminded that the ongoing energies we expend to build our lives are an express guarantee that our constructions will be undone with our passing. The only thing that holds our lives together is our energy.  And in the absence of our energy, the people and love and stuff that we have assembled and collected and shaped will unglue and dissociate.

When our metabolic fire is extinguished and our blood ceases to flow, our bodies begin to decay.  Likewise, someday, our human energy will dissipate, and our precious personal achievements will return to the lawless earth to be recycled.

And this is not sad.  Like the beauty and misery of motorcycling in the rain, it is part and parcel.  This is how life is.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Peril of Self-Aggrandizement

Call me a Negative Nancy, but I believe that not just one but many monsters lurk inside each one of us.  To address them all doesn't require a blog post; it requires an encyclopedia and a wiki website.  So for today, let's limit things to just one small, tidy monster.

There is a terrible monster inside each of us.  A proclivity.  A need.  We all desperately want to be important, to feel validated, to show that our work and our influence extends beyond ourselves.  We plunge recklessly forward, going to remarkable lengths to indulge this monster...sometimes to the point of defeating the ultimate goals we have in mind.

This week I find myself involved in a new project (which will remain unidentified for the time being).  There is a goal, and then there are several ways to get there.  Some ways are "big".  They involve incorporation, a board of directors, and extensive (and enduring) involvement with the City of Denver.  Other ways tread more lightly and leave fewer footprints.  They lack the gravitas and politico-sexiness of the Big Infrastructure path.  Out with the board of directors, in with the cheap DIY business cards.

The question is one of efficacy and goal.  If we wish to build a towering testament to our skills, egos, and enlightenment, then perhaps the "big" way is best.  But if our eyes remain on the prize, the REAL prize, then we may find that our cause and our comrades are best served by doing our work and then just stepping out of the way.

Someday this will be less vague.  I promise.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Short Rant About "Personal Touch"

With the hasty demise of our Square/iPad register, some observant and well-intentioned folk bemoaned the passing of that system's finer points.  Among other things, one of our IT oriented staffers commented that some of our clients would miss a computer that "recognized" them every time they came in, that "knew" their drinks and their history (and their credit card number)...that the camaraderie created by Square made regular customers feel validated.  He thought Square made people feel like they BELONG here.

I remember getting my first credit card (yes...this was so long ago that credit cards were made of stone) and being pleased when my name appeared at the bottom of each receipt.  Somebody's computer recognized me!  I was SOMEONE! 

That didn't last.  As Uncle Chet wrote, "the thrill is gone".

As a business owner, when I am offered an "easy" way to solve a complicated situation, I always wonder: is it TOO easy?  Does it really SOLVE the problem, or is it like morphine...something that makes the pain go away but leaves the bleeding wound unstanched?  Having a computer make my customers feel "included" sounds great...but I don't believe that it works.  I don't think my customers fall for it.  Moreover, customers that DO fall for it will just as easily be made to feel "included" by everyone else's "smart" register.  It ain't much of a commodity.

Inclusion and community may be a sizable part of what our customers want.  After all, they ARE human beings, right?  But the reason that inclusion is so valuable, though, is that it simply can't come from an iPad.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Evolution and the Hot Pink Gecko

Our first cash register came out of a dumpster in 1999.  That's not hyperbole.  It really did.  I climbed right into the dumpster and salvaged it myself.  It was a TEC MA-1400, and that register served us faithfully for 11 years.  We quite literally rang millions of dollars of sales with it.  Our dumpster register shared an organic sympatico with Kaladi Coffee.  It fit like an old shoe.

In keeping with old-shoeness, though, it also got to be a little dull and ratty.  The evolution of Square and the iPad register made us want something new.  So we bought an iPad and a new cash drawer and a fancy printer. 

I always expect change to hurt.  For a time, the confusion and angst and cash flow morass that came out of the new register felt like a normal growing pain.  My staff and I had to learn something new, and the learning hampered our ability to do business. I was determined that we should evolve.

But then there came a Magic Moment.  A Terrible, Awful Magic Moment.  The pain was normal became Definitely Not Normal..  It was that 3:00 AM instant when you realize your bad-gas stomachache is actually a rupturing appendix. It was time to ditch Square and the iPad.

Our culture worships newness and youth and sexiness and evolution.  It is very easy to get caught up in the hype and the shininess of the great new things around us.  But we need to remember that in and of itself, newness is not necessarily goodness.  Change is not necessarily Progress.  It is easy to forget that the vast majority of evolutionary change results in extinction.

From its ordinary green parents, the gecko that happened to be born with natural camouflage sand-colored skin did just fine.  Its three brothers and sisters, though...the ones that came out blue and orange and hot pink?  They were a beautiful breakfast for a hungry buzzard. 

We can't run away from evolution, or from the pain and fear that come with it.  To stay in the same place is in some way to ensure our imminent passing.  But we have a great advantage in that we can THINK about our evolution and CHOOSE our own path.  We can evaluate what may kill us, and what may make us stronger.  And when we have made a well-intentioned misstep, we can choke down another fat slice of humble pie, correct our error, and get back to business.

Happy Thanksgiving to the 99%, to the 1%, the 47% (I guess there's a corresponding 53%, eh?) and any other percents that managed to escape the pigeonhole.  I personally appreciate the way each and every one of us contributes to America and to the world in which we live.