Speed-of-Life Friday

Wow. It’s Friday again and I haven’t posted all week. I’m in crunch time leading up to the launch of my new company in a few weeks. I’ll talk more about that when the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. In the meantime, another heartwarming tale of bucking the system and inventing reality.

I started my first business with a guy named Tony Westbrook. Somehow we had both washed up on the shores of Santa Maria, California, an agricultural suburb of nowhere. I had dropped out of school to wander as aimlessly as I could, and after winding up on a sailboat in the Red Sea, I got hungry again to learn. I came home to find my parents had retired to Santa Maria, and I slept in my dad’s home office while taking classes to get back into school. Tony had just abandoned his life as a promising Mormon missionary. He’d had an epiphany at breakfast, and was gone by lunch, with nothing to fall back on and no one to rely on. He found a job at a donut shop on the swing shift, followed an ad to a room for rent, and signed up for the same college class that had grabbed my attention: "Death and Dying". 

Tony and I were instant friends. We were 20, ambitious, fearless, and totally unplugged from the traditional grid. Tony was the first to start a business, cleaning houses. He filled his car up with cleaning supplies and just went out and made it happen. There were a few setbacks, like the time he brought a garden hose into a filthy kitchen and hosed the whole place out. But he won loyal customers and built a channel with real estate agents and housing managers, prepping houses and apartments for transfer. After I went away to school, I’d come back on breaks and help out from time to time, and watched as he expanded into painting, and adding staff.

When I finished school, I came back and got my first job as a journalist with the Santa Maria Times. Tony’s business was cranking, but we both had much larger ambitions. We started looking for role models, reading Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, and more esoteric stuff like Richard Bandler and Erik Erikson. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that all the popular gurus promising to unlock the doors to success were just hacks. But rich hacks. We knew we could do better. We started researching all the various frameworks of motivational psychology, and came up with a plan for a series of software tools that would help users consistently develop and track effective behaviors including goal-setting, problem-solving and decision-making.

Our three-year launch of Scribe Software didn’t end well. It’s hard enough to launch a software company with a simple product, but add a complex curriculum requiring lots of R&D, and an industry in the first early throes of the Internet revolution, and even seasoned executives would have a challenge on their hands. We went our separate ways, and didn’t talk for years.

When I caught up with Tony a few years ago, he had moved to New Hampshire, and in typical Tony fashion, he found a niche and built a business. This time, he had gotten into the real estate boom as a title searcher and abstractor, a crusty line of business in desperate need of new energy. Tony and his wife brought new technology, customer service, and an unflagging willingess to canvass the state every day on their abstracting routes, to what quickly became a lucrative business. He bought an old colonial farmhouse in a picturesque village and settled in with his wife and daughter.

What makes this a "Speed-of-Life" story is what Tony’s doing now. He could have dumped his money into a Ferarri–like the one he had a poster of on his wall when we first started Scribe–and just enjoyed his success. But he invested his time and money in something else. Cameras. Some really nice cameras to photograph the areas where he liked to walk. What started as an interest became a passion, and now, in typical Tony fashion, a business. Somehow skirting the odds that weigh against anyone trying to enter the commodity business of photography, Tony’s creating his own reality: his images are selling, and he’s making a business out of what he loves to do. You can check out his work at TonyWestbrook.com, it’s well worth it–and a lot to show for working so hard to go your own way.

As Tony always tells me: Keep smiling.   


One thought on “Speed-of-Life Friday

  1. T Reding

    I always admire people who are able to build businesses out of their personal passions. These photographs are wonderful! Thanks for sharing.

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Speed-of-Life Friday

David Michael is my hero today. The only thing I like more than the software he produces is the story about the software he produces. It’s not so much about pursuing some lofty impossible dream as it is about just pursuing what you like to do and seeing where it leads you.

I’ve been using David’s software, The Journal, for almost 4 years. I discovered it during a desperate search to find something to organize my writing. If you’ve ever tried to organize a writing project in Word, you know how quickly it can drive you insane. Do you keep everything in one Word document, or do you distribute it across multiple documents and folders? How do you keep track of where things are, much less search through them without having to open a stream of documents? I tried everything, and invented a lot of dumb tactics for trying to keep everything together.

When I came across The Journal, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though it’s positioned as a journalling app, it’s really just a simple and flexible tool for organizing data. I started keeping my articles and columns in it, and then I started filing my ideas and business plans. Before long, I was using it to organize and track my business projects, priorities and research.

When I bought The Journal, it wasn’t hard to figure out that it was a small company. When I downloaded the software, I got a note from David, the CEO. He’s also the programmer, the marketer,  the customer service rep, and I’m sure the CFO. What surprised me is that he’s on top of all this stuff. Somehow he keeps the software up-to-date, adding new features and functions every few months. He responds to support questions quickly. And every time I’ve upgraded, the transaction has gone off without a hitch. I can’t even get that kind of experience with Dell.

So I dropped a note to David a couple of weeks back, asking him about his business. This is what he told me:

The roots go back to why I wrote The Journal in the first place. There were 2 main reasons. One was to learn how to use Delphi. The other was to replace MS Word as my journaling tool. Which is to say, I built The Journal originally for entirely personal reasons. I did, of course, have in the back of mind that it *might* result in something I could sell, but that wasn’t a motivator back then. After all, I had a full time job doing work I enjoyed (mostly).

After I finished The Journal 1.0, I posted it to some Delphi-oriented Web sites just to see what would happen. Feedback was positive, so I expanded it and started selling it as shareware.

Since then, a large portion of the motivation to continue to develop and support The Journal has come from the users. I like making software that people use, and I like hearing from the people that use my software. Making money at it is a nice motivator too, of course. I was the same way back at my full time jobs in the 1990’s. I loved interacting with my assigned users (other parts of the corporations) and making their work faster/better. I never liked it when I was just another programmer in the back room.

I’ve been more conscious of more traditional business goals the past 3-4 years.
Like maximizing revenue, reducing costs, improving marketing, and so on. Before that, I didn’t do much planning.

The growth of The Journal has allowed me certain options to pursue other creative outlets. Like writing, photography and game development. But even when those other activities take front stage in my life (for example, I have an indie game project in the works that is my current focus), The Journal is still a large part of my day.

So why do I find this business story so inspiring? It isn’t rags to riches. It isn’t David and Goliath. It isn’t even Profits Beat Analyst Expectations. It’s much simpler than that, and accessible for anyone on the planet. It’s one person pursuing what they love to do, and creating value for others in the process. And I’ve got to say, it really shows up in the quality of the product and the experience.

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Speed-of-Life Friday

It’s Friday. It’s summer. What better time to slow down and look at life in perspective?

It’s now two months since I jumped out of the daily grind, and the number one question I get is "so, what are you doing with all your time?" Let’s see. Monday I went for an epic ride on my Mountain Bike through the Mt. Tam watershed. Tuesday I spent the afternoon at SF MOMA, enjoying their Klee collection. Wednesday I took my son across the bay by ferry to the Giants game and watched them break their 7-game losing streak. Thursday I  read The Time Traveler’s Wife. Today, I’m heading out for a hike.

It feels a little manic, since only two months ago I was spending 70-80 hours a week either at the office or in transit. But it’s amazing to watch the clarity return. I have a lot more focus and interest in my work, and my productivity is accelerating. I’m up every day to write at 5:30, working on a theory about the next stage of marketing’s evolution. In the past week I designed and developed a blog for a friend’s business, wrote a brochure for a conference during New York’s Advertising Week, and wrote a project brief for a Product Roadmap gig I’m taking on. Most importantly, I’m now in the final stages of defining a business plan for the launch of my next business. I feel better, and sharper, than I have in years.

So with all the talk about global sustainability–now more than ever with everyone freaked out about the weather–I’m thinking a lot more about the concept of sustainability in my business life. I’ve done my time running 100mph in first gear, and I’m sure when I launch my new business I’ll have a lot of long and difficult hours. But it’s clearer to me now how critical it is to maintain a competitive edge by maintaining sanity. It’s too easy to come unglued in the grinding pace of daily life and bury the disconnection every night with a couple of beers and TIVO.

Yeah, I know you’ve heard it all before. Stop and smell the roses. But it’s true. You can only be at your best under fire for so long. When you live like so many of us do under constant fire, you can’t maintain perspective, clarity or energy–which is just as bad for your company as it is for you.

So what’s the solution? Personally, I highly recommend quitting. It’s not profitable, but it’s inspiring, and it forces you to think creatively and make things happen instead of letting life paint itself by the numbers. But you tell me: what do you to stay inspired and sane? Does it work?

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