Monday, September 23, 2013

Peddling Forward

I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to do something that scares you – something that gets you out of your comfort zone, challenges you, and evolves you into something new.  Whether it’s buying or starting a business or challenging yourself physically or mentally, a personal breakthrough is almost always on the horizon when you take on something, pass or fail, you weren’t sure you could do.

In six years of business ownership, I’ve faced a number of challenges, some that I anticipated and others that just snuck up alongside me the way things do in life.  And each time, I’ve found ways to accept the challenge, work through it, and learn more about my business and myself.  I have had close calls with calamity.  And, I have had help from complete strangers in difficult times that seemed like gifts from the Karma bank.

Recently, I took on a personal challenge that had a surprising number of parallels to my work world, which compelled me to reflect on the last six years.

Early this year, I was invited to join a bike team and ride the Bike MS event in Columbia,MO.  Bike MS is a two-day event set up by the Multiple Sclerosis Society that attracts about 4,000 riders, who tackle various courses up to 200 miles in all over country roads, state highways and service roads through busy stretches and quiet Amish country.

I eventually warmed up to the invitation to join the team.  A friend gave me a road bike, and for the first time in 20 years, I started riding and training getting used to all the new gadgetry and a riding stance that is completely different than the off road riding I am used to.

Here are a few things I learned or realized that weekend that might be worth sharing with budding entrepreneurs and business owners.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Team
You may have an incredible idea for your business, but no matter how amazing you are, you need a team to get you to where you want to go.  Be open to following your team through certain parts of the course.  Draft behind them when they know more about the subject than you do.  Their ways may be different than yours, but that’s okay.

In the early stages of the Bike MS race, the peloton was a couple thousand strong.  While teams generally rode together, there were plenty of strangers and competitors riding ahead or alongside, and they were all looking out for each other for the common goal of safety.  Shout outs of “car up”, or “car back” signaled traffic nearing and a variety of sign language warned of problems on or near the road.  Sometimes, your team will need outside advisors concerned about your overall success.  Take their counsel.  Listen to their advice.  They could be seeing things in the road that aren’t visible to you.

Avoid Flat Tires
In the first ten miles of the first day of riding, there were dozens, if not hundreds of flat tires.  Typically, the things that threaten tires collect near the edge of the road.  In addition to the usual glass, rocks, sticks and debris there was a large area of tacks on the course as if someone had thrown them out deliberately to spite this charitable event.  Steering clear of the problems that were all bunched together was key, even though that shifted the potential danger of riding closer to traffic.

Business problems tend to attract each other and hide in groups.  Steer clear of them whenever possible.  Don’t tempt them.  And, if you have problems, deal with them head on and plan on them (be ready to fix and go.)

Some People Get Their Kicks Stomping on a Dream
If the tacks in the road were deliberate, it reminded me of another lesson I learned years ago.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, someone you trust, or at least don’t fear, does something to knock you down.  It’s inexplicable, really, but it happens to everyone.  The thing to remember is to fix your tire and move on.  Holding a grudge or vowing retribution drags you down.  One man in the ride suffered four separate flat tires that morning.  He fixed one and had another, and another and another.  We heard him talking about it later, while he was having a bike mechanic line his tires with Kevlar sleeves.  He was fixing the problem and letting it go.

In business this is the case too, so many times people you work with or look towards for support may not see the same vision or share the same dream. Don’t let this hold you back – if you feel strong enough about an idea then push on through.

Meet New People Along the Way
My team mates are way more accomplished road riders than I will ever be.  As they hit their strides, they gradually pulled away.  Eventually, I lost sight of them and settled into my new reality, meeting new people in the journey, pulling alongside each other, chatting a bit and pulling away more enriched, like the best networking you can imagine.

If you don’t look beyond yourself, you may never see new possibilities for you or your business.  Look around and see the person pedaling a recumbent bike with his hands, because his legs no longer can.  Or, the man riding a unicycle carrying a large American flag for the 40 miles he road.  (Remember, there’s no coasting on a unicycle.)  Or, the retired track coach, whose team mates in their 30’s bailed out ten miles in, and he’s riding 40 miles against wind and rain.  Or, the sixth grade teacher who encouraged absolutely everyone she encountered as she passed them.  She is the sixth grade teacher we all wanted as we left fifth grade, and she’s making an impression on people of all ages.

Things Get Difficult and Boring
On Saturday morning at the start, there were about 1,000 riders ahead of us and another 3,000 behind us.  The start was a huge adrenaline rush, much like launching the start-up companies I’ve been involved with.  As the miles and rural scenes rolled past, the peloton spread out, and the energy of the start was behind us.  Then, it became the journey of a thousand miles, or in this case, 100 miles accomplished one pedal crank after another.  Routine takes over, and monotony sets in.  For anyone addicted to an adrenaline rush, there are few things worse.  But, steady work and a routine are important in accomplishing most things.  Stick with it.  Keep pedaling.  Bring in people who thrive on routine, and keep the encouragement level high.

Take Advantage of Every Rest Stop
After opting for an additional 25 miles on day one, I passed up the first rest stop of the extra miles, anticipating there would be another one in just 10 miles.  The next one was actually 22 miles later, putting me close to a 30 mile leg between rests in 96 degree heat.  When you’re working hard, you need a break.  Take time to refresh and energize, whatever that means for you.

John Schwent On A Great Ride!
There were other experiences along the ride that restored my belief in humanity, like strangers stopping to help stranded bikers, or my team mate who rode out Sunday barely ahead of a two-hour thunderstorm because he promised his donors he would ride two, 100-mile rides back to back, or the Amish family who opened their property and served up a delicious assortment of baked goods, or the paramedics who helped those in need.

It was more than a bike race.  It was a way to give back and recalibrate my thinking going forward.  And, all that while challenging me to do something I was afraid to do.  It just might be time for you to accept a challenge for yourself and peddle forward!

Guest Blog Post:
Owner & President, Profit Recovery Systems
Contact John at:

John Schwent is a close friend and a great business partner over the years. We have worked together at Maritz, American Express, Affinity Center International and much, much more. I was very inspired by his recent decision to join this long distance bike race for charity. Just like in life, business requires us to pull inspiration from everywhere and anyone we can. John is an inspiration to me and I he did what many want to do, start their own business. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

E-mail To Future Self

I was asked this question the other day:

What’s the most difficult aspect of starting a company? • Can you talk about some of the early challenges you faced? • If you could go back and give your past-self one piece of advice, what would it be?”

Email To: Future Me
Subject: Hey Me – It’s Going To Take Longer Than You Think!

Two plus years ago, I founded Affinity Center International, a Reston-based association loyalty and member engagement marketing firm. Here are four points I would send myself in a time traveling email.

Dear Me,

Listen up! You need to really think about these five points – they will help make the adventure more enjoyable for all:

1. People are the challenge. The right people on the bus make all the difference. While past performance of a person is a great indicator of future performance, you still need to take into account the new variable of working for a start-up. Some people do well in big, old, process filled businesses, but in uncharted territory they become lost or focused on the wrong things. Start-ups are about a team morphing into one living organism: no egos, no titles, just pure movement and velocity of the business. If a person slows down the team or derails the focus; get them off the bus ASAP. People will come and go at different stages of the start-up’s lifecycle – that’s OK.

2. Set realistic expectations early. Investors (both financial and mental support) will push for bigger sooner. Remember that the desired outcome will likely be longer and slower than they’d like (or yourself). Rapid growth can be addressed, but the expectation of speed and size once shaped is hard to shift. This can create a cycle where, even when you are succeeding in development, gaining ground in the market and moving forward, you feel like you are not exceeding the expectations that were set. Also, numbers no matter how much you say are “rough estimates” become real once on paper and you have to live with them.

3. Take care of yourself. The stress, challenges and pushing to bring something new reality will be a mental and physical wallop to oneself. Eat well, get out and experience more than 24-7 start-up stuff. As the leader, people will come at you from all sides – don’t miss the one key side that also needs care and attention, yourself. Create breathing room for other things, schedule “me time” to think, research and explore, go find old friends to talk about other topics. Be more than your start-up.

4. Its a river not a pond. A start-up is like an expedition to an unknown land and a river with many turns, white water rapids and water falls. You plan, pack as best as you can and bring the right team for the journey. You may lose team members, or have unforeseen challenges, but you will be richer for everything you experience. 

5. Status quo is the enemy. You need to be growing all the time, finding the next level the next field of results to grow towards. Remember when you Dad was very ill and in the hospital when the Doc's said "he is stable" and you said "great" and they said "No this is bad. We either want to see improvement or getting worse that way we know what we are doing has an impact, other wise he will have a catastrophic event in the near future and die" - well a start up is like that, keep adjusting and changing, seeing growth or not. 

Don’t forget, this is why you love start-ups!

Best in Spirit!


Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Cup Of Coffee

When was the last time you really listened to a customer? I don’t mean a report or a survey or through some type of filer – I mean sitting face to face? Also I don't mean meeting to deal with an issue, or resolve a problem, or ask for a renewal or more work?  I mean to sit there, in some place that is neutral and share a cup of coffee and connect, look the person in the eyes and really care.

Over the past twenty years of selling, client development, account management I have watched and learned a great deal about human nature and business. It is amazing how companies and more importantly teams of people disconnect from their clients and in time the contact drifts away.
There are no silver bullet tricks, but three steps to building a long-term business relationship could include (and I have my development teams do):

1. Listen not defend or push: To build a relationship with a client that lasts a career it starts with something as simple as a cup of coffee.  Reach out to a key customer contact and offer to meet early in the morning and grab a cup of coffee to catch up. Go with the intent to listen. Go with no other motive in mind just to be present and there with the client. Ask how they are doing and really listen. If they share about work, or about a project, or something that is bugging them don’t get defensive, don’t try and take action on the spot – instead say “thank you for sharing…” and listen. At a point take the conversation in a different direction – ask about something they are working on they are excited about? Are they doing anything fun? Don’t over wear your welcome, no more than a 45-minute coffee chat – close out with “let me see what I can do on XYZ… and I will get back to you later in the week” and do follow up.

So many times when we meet with clients it is to fix an issue, or debate a person, project or point. We only talk when there is an issue, a pain or the relationship has gone sour. It is preventive relationship building to have small touch points along the way to see how the person is doing.

Years ago I had a business friend, Phil, which had just won a big city contract. The head of the program and contract owner, Jack, was a hard-hitting guy who was all about construction, all about work. The contact was recently won and the start up of the site, the team and the projects were rocky. Jack was testy in group meetings, he was pushing back on the scopes, the estimates, just seemed off. Phil called me a bunch of times, all worried that Jack was angry and wanted to kill the contact. I kept asking “have you talked with him???” and Phil said he was fearful of what the push back was or worse yet Jack would cancel the contract. I said to my pal Phil, “go have a cup of coffee with him, get him alone and just ask ‘Jack how are you doing?’ – don’t mention the contract, the concerns – just connect and say you are thinking about him. Well as most engineer and technical types Phil was challenged to do this, but he did (I also told Phil I would not take his worried calls any more until he did). Sure enough four hours later Phil called and said “wow what a great conversation with Jack. He is going through issues at home, he is also retiring in 6 months and four people on his team have left… and so on. They connected as people and Phil and Jack started working in a way that was more about respect and results. After that once a week until Jack retired they had one cup of coffee a week and it made all the difference. Neither felt alone.

2. Look Them In The Eye Every Three Months: Over the years I have learned that if you want a real, growing and connected relationship with a client, with an industry partner – even your competitors, you need to sit with them at least once in person for a minim of one hour at least once every three months. Yes this is a commitment, but all strong relationships require this. If not in time the bonds begin to break, life gets busy and new things fill the void.

A few years back I was working on a contract with a team in the southwest. The client relationships were all great and things were humming along. So off I went to work on other teams and other accounts. Realizing it was six months later I planned on spending a week in the southwest just stopping by and saying hey to the clients. Sure enough while I was in one universities construction office the client contact owner said “I forgot about you guys on this new pool project, darn, you would have been great…” Yes his managers were working great on the projects in the hopper with our teams and he knew of the local manager and saw them at a recent industry event – but his brain didn’t engage on us for new work because no one stopped by in the past six months to just catch up. While we got other work that day, we did lose a perfect project because we were not top of mind and just stopping by.

3. Relief Valve: It is always good to have someone in the mix on a contract or an ongoing business relationship that is able to step in, meet with the client but is not part of the everyday service or support team. Being able to meet, touch base and check in and ask “how is it going with the support?” – again face to face the first time, maybe via the phone the next three times is key. Yes, many times the regional, local management hates this, but it is not about them it is about how the client is feeling. More accounts are lost and never heard from again than the client reaching out and saying “hey I hate you guys and I’m leaving” instead they drift away and the local teams are more about the next new thing.
While I was never part of the actual support, or construction projects I always was around in the start up of a new contract to just keep an ear and an eye open to see how things were unfolding. While I might have been “from corporate” the fact was the company, the whole company – not one team or one region, owned a contract. I found that in the first six projects if there were issues the contract was in jeopardy long term.

After working with a whole team of people (field, corporate, industry) to win a hard won federal contract I wanted to make sure we succeeded from the start. This $70 million a year potential for 5 year contact was a key growth effort. As a “marketing guy” or as the field construction teams like to call me “the soft and squishy guy” I went to the first client brief and project sessions. 20 engineers, construction, contracting types and me. Quickly it became obvious there was a disconnect with the client contracting officer and his people and ours. So on my own I stopped by their regional offices to just say “hi” and listen. It was clear there were issues with the local team, one or two of the players on our side just didn’t get it. I was able to bring that feedback to the leaders. Sadly they didn’t listen and three months later this $400 million potential was gone. It hurt me on my heart and spirit. Clients want relief valves, they want a way to be hurt and not have to deal with the local teams and hurt feelings – at the same time they want what they want.

Business relationships need to be about trust, about having a personal relationship with the client. This takes time, personal commitment and a desire to build a relationship based on care of the client as a person. Sometimes it is as simple as “how are you doing?” and step back to listen.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Juicing & Business Travel

Back in April of this year my sister in law Karen sent an email to my wife Kristy and said “David needs to watch this movie Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead the guy that made it Joe Cross reminds me of David and the issues David has had with his weight and eating healthy…” From that point on I have been working on being the CEO of my Health (thanks Kris Carr for sharing this at the camp) and on a new path in my relationship with food and healthy living.

Prior to attending the Reboot Camp in NY, with Reboot With Joe and his team I was having one or two fresh juices a day. At the camp I started my 100% juice adventure and at day 49 I am still going strong.  Without going into the whole thinking behind a reboot and juicing (I will do that in another article) I wanted to focus on business travel and juicing. Whether doing a 100% juice only diet or just wanting one or two fresh juices a day here are three tips on finding the juice you need.

1. Search The Area: I was traveling to Atlanta for a conference and I wanted to make sure that I had a contact flow of fresh juice (I was at a conference and very busy). So I went to Google maps, put in the hotel address on the map. Then I search “Near By” for fresh juice, juice or vegan food. I found 5 stores near by and I called two shops.  I ended up connecting with Chantel the owner of Rawesome Juicery and she had seen Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead and was excited to help.

Chantel had each day my fresh juice made and delivered to the hotel early in the morning. The hotel staff would bring the fresh juices to my room and the small fridge in the room. It was great – over the four days in Atlanta I was fully juiced and at 100% for my meetings, show floor and presentations.

2. Tell Your Story: I was traveling to Pebble Beach in Monterey and staying at the Inn at Spanish Bay. It was four days of meetings and meals with the leadership team. I reached out to the hotel staff and asked for “who handles the food at the resort?” and they ended up connecting me with the head chef. I shared my story and the fact that I was juicing 100%. He quickly said, “that is amazing, I watched the movie Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead about a year ago and I have been drinking a fresh juice everyday since. I have lost 40 pounds and feel great…” He mapped out my juices for the time at the inn and that he would bring his juicer from home and make them for me. 

I have found that by sharing my juicing journey with others – in more of a personal way not a lecture or trying to prove a point, more of the fun and trying to better deal with my health. I am amazed at the people at hotels, restaurants and conference centers and how they want to help. Almost 100% connected to my mission (out of 8 trips and business meetings in the past 49 days all 8 the people were so helpful).

3. The Range, From A Fresh Juice To Gasoline: As I travel through airports, conference centers and hotels I will find myself at a point where I need to get a juice and what should I do? At Camp Reboot Joe Cross shared the idea around how he looks at things t drink. He described a range on everything, with at the right side there is a fresh homemade juice with the freshest organic veggies he can find. At the far, far left was gasoline – the worst thing you can drink. So when looking at a juice that is in a bottle he likes Evolution juice but has also drank Naked Juice. That we do the best we can while traveling and moving beyond the home front. Same with me now – I see a scale/range and think how does the choices I have before me fit into this scale? The goal is to eat healthy, eat what I can to get the best food choices into my body. At the same time it is not about freaking out or being tethered to my juicer at home.

Business and juice go together. The key is to be open, to share and to explore. I find that many people are challenged with eating healthy and business. The more you open up the more the people share and connect. It makes the travel and juicing less difficult by being connected to the businesses and people.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Color Is Your Development?

Two interesting conversations recently took place that have a common crossroads. For me it stems from the idea of color and business. Over the past thirty years I have had the ability to see things in development as a finalized, real thing – the end result. A new product, I see it in the final package sitting on the shelf waiting to be bought. A new service being used by the end customer. It has always been an internal guide of what is deliverable and creatable and what might not be.

At the same time I would see and think of these development efforts in many different ways – having reviewed, used, crafted and built every type of development tool imaginable in an effort to gain a competitive edge. In the end I have realized that the skill and in many ways art of developing new products, services, businesses is not for everyone. Not everyone has the ability to see the unseen, or feel the pulse of a market or find the pattern in the white noise of a market.

That  is where color comes in to play.

No Blue to write about…

On NPR recently, on Radio Lab there was a series of stories around color. They were all fascinating, but the one on the topic of the color blue jumped out – “Why Isn’t The Sky Blue”. The fast forward to all this is the fact that before a certain point in written history there was no use of the color blue to describe anything, and this all began with a close review in the early 1800’s of The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. Never once was the word blue used to describe the sky or the water – the color black, or white or even red where used many times – yellow and green a handful of times. Later on a scholar reviewed all the ancient text of the world – from the Vikings to the ancient Chinese; from Beowulf to the original Hebrew Old Testament. In the end the word blue was never used to describe anything.

So the question is, was the world color blind? Could the early history of humanity not see blue? Or was it something else?

What was realized is that, the colors of black was always first to be seen in writing, next white, followed by red, then yellow and next green – finally with blue. In all languages, all ancient stories anywhere in the world. What it came to light was that blue is the color that is hardest to find in nature and even harder to be man made and create. Only the Egyptians had a word for blue early and they had a source of making the color blue for painting.

So not until people could produce the color did they need a word for it.  Not until it was in their hands, made by their own hands was it real. Sounds like the fact of those that develop new things – looking to create what no words can describe.

What a cool though. It took me back a bit. No word for blue for a long, long time.

Gray is the color of development?

Next was a business meeting with the owner of a multiple billion dollar company, talking about how to look at new business development, new ideas and start ups. He stated “so much of business is about black and white thinking, or better yet red or black, and this might be the case of an established business but the color of a start up is so much gray it is hard for the black and white people to even see the potential.”

This lead to the thinking that those in new creation, new start ups, new products see the world differently. They are more comfortable with grey – neither right nor wrong, just experience and results; speed and adjustment. This bridged into a visual I have always used when teaching development. Image one is a straight hall, no doors, no turns and the end of the hall is in sight. This is how traditional, established business types see the world – black and white, one answer, one direction.

Next I would show a classical garden maze. This is really want new development is more like. Only in the doing, exploring, asking, seeking and feeling our way do those in development find the path forward. How big is the maze? How complicated? Are their clues to the right path (like some mazes have a ‘turn to the left and you find the end’)? There are those that love the excitement of a new maze, a new challenge and others love the straight shot hall to the meeting room.

It made me think back to that day, in my office at Maritz in the 1385 Bld, where on a marker board I drew out a bunch of boxes, lines and words – I used all the colors in the box of markers I had, but the end word “Industry Changer” was in big blue letters, with stars and circles around it. The idea of the first pre-paid, stored value card – the grandpa of gift cards and debit cards was on the board. I could see the end product in the hands of a user – gaining access to the rewards THEY wanted, the ease, choice and value of a new way to allow people to buy goods and earn a reward. It was in full color and real in my mind. All the colors of light, including gray.

When you think of developing a new idea, what color do you see?