Thursday, May 20, 2021

Returning Bugs

The cicadas are coming back on time, but the kids aren't.

Seventeen years ago I wanted to be that guy who took the photo and then re-created it when the kids were older.  The one with the foresight that one day things would be different, but I would insert something to make it rhyme.

And so when the cicadas arrived on our windshields in May 2004 I had our fearless daughter (Jessie) pick up the fat bugs, calm her siblings down and pose with them.  And then I imagined that in 17 years I would take the picture with bigger people and smaller-looking bugs. 

We forget about these things until something jolts us and we realize that it's been 17 years and the bugs are returning and the singing starts anew.

Without notice I slipped into our room where we keep the dusty photo albums and prayed with outsized strength that I would find the evidence with old pictures stuck behind the laminate. 

And then I found the year on the spine and turned the pages until I spotted the three shiny photos.  I touched them and made that motion one makes nowadays on photos to make it bigger, clearer, as if it were a mobile device.  But I couldn't get any closer to the photos, just as I can't get any closer to those kids who later that night probably took baths and got into their pajamas and were tucked into a bed in our house under one roof, with a book and a stuffed animal.

"The cicadas are coming" I told them all in a family group chat.

Seventeen years ago our family group chat was the kitchen table.

"They will be here in May," I wrote with excitement.  "Here are the photos from 17 years ago, can't wait to replicate..."

But what I failed to grasp 17 years ago when they were ages 4, 6, and 8 is the same misguidance I'm experiencing now.  At 21, 23 and 25 they aren't around for a picture.  During the month of May they are at work and away at school.  They aren't in the same city or even the same time zone, let alone the same house, bedroom or bath.

Cicadas are grouped into geographic broods.  This year's brood will emerge when the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees.  

My brood’s return is less clear.

And so trillions will soon rise from the ground clicking and chirping to a screeching pitch as they buzz, annoy and procreate.   

I could not have imagined 17 years ago that the cicadas would arrive just as we are emerging from our own cocoon. 

And so as the song in the backyard begins and I feel the power of nature's rhythm, I am reminded how ours has been disrupted.

If there is one thing we've learned from 2020 it's that making plans is a dangerous game.

I can hear their song in the distance.

A song seventeen years in the making.

But my photo will come.

Maybe not on my schedule.  But it will come.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Picture's Worth

What's a picture worth in 2020?

1,000 words?  10,000?

One of these pictures was taken at the end of 2019 looking forward to the Start of 2020.

The other was taken this week, looking forward to the End of 2020.

Ah, so little has changed.  Same smiles.  Same head tilt.  Different order.

At the end of 2020 a picture isn't worth much.

The crises lie out of view.

We are changed in ways the picture can't capture.

So when we ask the kids what lessons they've gleaned from 2020 and they can't answer.  I think I understand.

It's still open, the wound too fresh, and most importantly it's not over.  Years end on December 31st, not viruses.  

But it will come.

We often don’t feel the impact of big things until much later.  

Even something physical like a punch to the gut, a bop on the head.  There is some immediate pain, but the real damage can take years.
What will last longer?  The grandparent cancelling all they look forward to, the parent trying to balance work and homeschooling from the same kitchen table, the lost years of childhood socialization, the lost school year, the single adult who lived for months without physical contact, the student who missed prom/graduation/freshman year, the business owner who was shut down through no fault or mismanagement, the career put on hold.  The adult "children" who again slept under the covers of their childhood binky.

And how about all the sandwiched adults worrying about their business, their aging parents, their aging adult children.

Asked to rank 2020 in terms of Work, Family and Personal a group of middle-age business leaders said:

Family ranked highest, with moments of sunshine through the clouds, an unexpected filled nest.

Even those most tormented by Work admitted to unifying moments:  The extra mile by the quiet employee, the appreciated company-funded healthcare, the government loan that built a bridge.

And here was the kicker.  No matter how good the balm of family moments or how rich the business pivot, their Personal well-being ranked far behind.

The business might have survived or thrived, the extra time with the adult kids might have brought new understanding, but deep down they are just are trying to hold it together because the maxim that "it's all gonna be fine" just didn't sound as believable in 2020. 

The nice thing about New Years is our mind change along with the calendar.

We talk about next year, not last year.  And that is the reason for the smiles which makes them believable and worth a lot.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Go Vote, We All Need Some Sleep

 I don’t sleep anymore

I know I’m not alone.  Nothing makes you feel less special than an article in the New York Times chronicling something you thought was yours.

According to the Mayo Clinic there are six keys to getting a restful night sleep.  Number six is "Manage Your Worries"

As someone said:  “Atleast in a nightmare you get some sleep.”

But it’s not just my nightmare, both sides believe this election is the beginning of the end if the other side wins.  

Eighty (80%) percent of Biden voters say that if Trump wins we slide into a dictatorship.

Ninety (90%) percent of Trump voters believe if Biden wins we slide into Socialism.

I don’t sleep well because I don't know the rules anymore.

I don't know what to believe.

I don't know where the guardrails are.

There is this fall back position that things always turn out all right, the pendulum swings back, what's the worst that can happen?

I don't even trust metaphors, truisms or conventional wisdom.

I want to believe that there are consequences for bad behavior.

I want to believe if you skirt the law you aren’t rewarded, if you skirt convention you’re not re-elected.

I can read history with all the clarity that distance provides and see that Nixon did something bad, he got caught, his own party turned their back on him, and justice was delivered.

This year isn't about listening to tapes 30 years later.  This is Mitch McConnell playing dirty poker in broad daylight, and winning. 

This is Lindsay Graham basically saying “read my lips” and then lying.  And there are no consequences.

I want to live in a country that believes in something, not someone.  

A country that believes in some science, some history, some ideas, some set of facts.  

I want to live in a country where institutions matter, where we can rely on medical testing or the CDC or NIH or the WHO or NATO or DOJ to protect us.

But it’s all been sullied now.

I hope this moment in our history is a parenthesis in our national narrative. 

A business colleague from Germany reminded me recently that "The world forgives when a country makes bad choices."

But will they forgive if we do it again?

Election Day used to be fun.  I would bring the kids into the voting booth, get a sticker.  

But now?

Springsteen said earlier this week we are "rudderless and joyless"

Fun has been stripped from our national narrative.

The bar for inspiration is so low that this 3-minute panel discussion from the Newsroom brought me backAsked what makes America the greatest country in the world?  The conservative says Freedom, the liberal says "diversity and opportunity.”  But wait for it…  

Watch the whole clip --link below-- because the answer isn’t just that we aren't anymore.  

But that we can be again.

 So go Vote.  We all need some sleep.

Newsroom/Jeff Daniels/Aaron Sorkin,


Friday, June 12, 2020

Measuring Demand in a Time of Uncertainty


What do you do if you are in the business of market sizing and predicting consumer behavior and the markets get shut and consumers forced inside?

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest disruptor to hit the global economy, and our everyday lives.

When this is all over, what will people want? Other than shaking hands, what else will change?

As one of our analysts put it: “Next month, if we are set free, you may schedule that business trip that you should have taken last month. But you will run out to get that long overdue haircut. The trouble is, you won’t get two haircuts. That money is gone.”

Most recent crises were financially driven: The dot com bust, the financial crisis of 2008.  So while deliberately shutting down many sectors of the world economy is a moment without history, our experience from other sudden changes give us guidance about how sudden shocks to these industries are resolved.

We believe consumer response to this crisis will be faster and more robust because of the strength of the underlying economy when this began, which differentiates it from the most recent economic declines. There will be pent up demand. The market for various products will change, but how much and for how long?

How do we frame this moment?

We look to past events to learn how product demand is affected by market variables and then use projections of those market variables to anticipate how demand will evolve in the future. But it’s not just the mechanics, the process, the numbers, it’s how and why those relationships held in the past and why they might change in the future.

This is not BIG DATA. It’s deliberately small data with big analysis. We take topics where there is limited information like copper piping or flat glass and we create market data and insights.

We are like the archeologists who find a handful of dinosaur bones, but can create the entire dinosaur skeleton from them.  We take a small amount of information, and through associated data, research, and expertise, build it out into the entire picture of an industry.

But it starts with data.  Take the healthcare market for sanitizers and disinfectants. There is no published data on this market at the industrial and institutional level. So we look at the number of healthcare facilities in a certain region, the square footage of these places, and the facility type to estimate how much they are using. Then we might look at hospital expenditures, healthcare acquired infections, and how that is driving demand.

And then of course, there’s the human factor.  After various historical events we have feared flying, feared trains, feared crowds. Now we fear people, closeness, nose scratching and running out of toilet paper.

Market researchers are modern day fortune tellers.

But we don’t read palms.  Beyond the data it’s all about relationships and the factors that make them change.  Predicting the future is all about understanding the past, even in a time without precedent.

Friday, May 15, 2020

PPP is a chance to Pause, Plan and Pivot


PPP is more than just a Payroll Protection Program, it is a chance to Pause, Plan and Pivot.

There are any number entrepreneur/investor idioms being thrown around about how to run your business in a crisis: fix the plane while flying is the one being tossed our way.

We are in the midst of the third cataclysmic economic event of our company’s life -- We raised our first round of financing just weeks before the dot com bust, launched our business nine months before 9/11, and then we purchased a business that sold into the financial markets just months before my CFO came to me and said, “Lehman Brothers can’t pay their bill.”  I told him he was nuts.

Years ago, during one very productive time a member of my team asked: “We feel like Lucy in the chocolate factory, when do we exhale?”

There is never a break, the machine keeps producing candy, the clock keeps ticking, but now we are being given a moment to breathe, sharpen the saw, check the compass, fill the tank.

The PPP program, while not perfect, for many companies is doing exactly what it set out to do:  help businesses keep their employees while they reassess and recalibrate in a market that’s been deliberately shut down. And I think it’s a perfectly good way for the government to act at this moment without precedent.

There are lots of arguments regarding government help for businesses in times of crisis, but what is a business to do?  Currently the government requires us, for the public good, to move from our office, set up our employees to work remotely, and try to sell our wares in an economy that we are deliberately contracting.

So the crie de coeur of an entrepreneur is to pivot.  Change directions.  Make ventilators not cars, hand sanitizer not gin. But not everyone can and so instead of crashing the plane this program says we’re gonna give you 8 weeks to pay your employees, bring back those you may have furloughed and figure out how turn to navigate.

The government here is acting as a partner and saying, “Look, we’re gonna shrink your market and squeeze some of your customers and maybe even your margins, but instead of figuring this out in mid-flight, we’re gonna build a runway for you in the middle of the ocean, let’s see what you can do.”

When the program was announced we didn’t give it much thought because our first instinct is always to turn inward, toward the team, our group of advisors, never to the government. 

But we’re a midsized company.  We’re not too big to fail. We’re too important to fail. 

Too important to our employees.  Too important to their families, to their children and their parents and their mortgage-holders and their insurance agents and their car leaseholders and their pets and their co-workers and our office leaseholders and our health insurance company and the hundreds of partners, customers and vendors who rely on the protection of this paycheck, from us.

This plan was conceived to help small companies and their employees.  We’ve been given the space, now it’s up to us to get back in the air and soar.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Graduation Cancelled, Life Postponed, the Kids are Alright

Mine was cold and rainy.  Hers was sun-drenched.

We drank cheap champagne. Really cheap. She ate expensive Zingermans, and without the wait.

Someone must have had a disposable camera and taken these lovely pictures that show the grayness of the day and the distinct lack of pomp and circumstance.  Her day was meticulously documented on Snapchat and Instagram.

This weekend my daughter graduated from the same university I left 31 years ago.

Our speaker was unremarkable.  I had to Google the speech to remember who spoke and what he said.

She watched on Zoom.  Some friends put together a makeshift commencement speech and everyone worked really hard to make it nice.

Graduation is like New Year's Eve, lots of build up and often, no delivery.

Had we been in Ann Arbor there would have been complaints:  it's too hot, it's too cold, this person spoke too long or too short.  There was none of that.

The moms made up a poem and read it to the girls. Throughout the weekend everyone got Face-time with the graduate and it was memorable.

There's been an outpouring of concern, lamenting what these kids lost or how they were gypped out of their day.

Rituals are important, they create memories.  But sometimes it's the hiccup in the line of rituals that makes them memorable.

The graduation cancellation is a microcosm of the past 7 weeks. The frustrations and disappointments of daily life fade away and the world is a little fresher because we are putting a new stamp on it.

But I am impressed watching this generation surf these waves of disappointment: Interviews on hold, jobs postponed, internships cancelled, plans changed.

In the words of Pete Townsend, "The Kids Are Alright."

There have been tears during these four years.  I remember the moment she found out she had gotten in.  It was during winter break, when "everyone" had heard the day before.  The website kept crashing and then, the tears.

The moment she walked into that dorm, we drove away and I thought we'd never have her home again...Tears, although they were mine.
The ups and downs of life at college are bound to bring successes and disappointments.  But the moment she got a text from the University saying "classes are cancelled, go home," must have been the worst.

She texted me and said, "I think I just walked out of my final college class." (tears)

That's the part that stings.  Her mindset had been:  Two more months of closure, final parties, final trips to Skeeps, final favorite meals, and then someone tells you that you've already had the last one.  No more classes, no more crowded bars or pre-games.  Those are hard moments for a college kid. For

But they rolled with it, made it home (more tears), adjusted their lens, found new ways to apply for jobs and finish out their classes. And at the end of the weekend, after all the planning and re-planning the consensus was, they felt loved.

It wasn't what they planned, and that's okay. A great lesson to finish out their college career.  "The kids are alright."

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Whither the handshake?


So what will really change when we emerge from our houses to the world’s altered landscape?

Yes, bowling shoes, buffets and salad bars will become remnants of a time when we could still breath near each other. But one staple of business meetings, interviews and 3-martini lunches, the handshake, is on the chopping block to become a COVID casualty.

During quarantine I’ve watched commercials and old television shows (Pre-March 1st) in  horror as people shake hands and then eat a meal. It’s suddenly as unpleasant as the endless videos showing a sneeze plume traversing the shelves of a grocery store and smothering the unsuspecting.

There has been some inspired improvisation, but nothing says hello like grabbing someone’s hand and making a sawing motion.

It’s one of the first formulas of adulthood from my father: Good eye contact plus firm handshake equals good impression. 

But what could replace it?

I’ve seen the boot touch, but it seems to require a bit too much dexterity to become widespread.

There is the Namaste bow, a slight bend at the waist, prayer hands in front, but I’m sure it will have its detractors.

The elbow touch, was demonstrated in all its uncomfortable awkwardness by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in their empty debate hall.

The fist bump, as well as the high five are way too close to the handshake, far too much skin contact.

There is the wink which has the advantage of obeying the six feet of social distancing but could get awkward real quick.

They say President Kennedy’s discomfort with headwear signaled the demise of the hat business in the United States. But like many things that might be returning we could see a reemergence of the fedora, the panama hat, perhaps the bowler leading to a return of the hat tip.

There’s always the curtsy or a bow one might do before a queen, but once we start having differences for men and women, there’s lots of judgment.

The end-of-the-performance bow, where the arm unfurls a la Liberace might make a comeback.

A dancing friend suggested parties mirror each other like the Macarena or the Electric Slide. Again this could favor the more gifted or rhythmically inclined.

It’s very hard to be bad at the handshake, other than being too soft or too strong which is only then known by the recipient. Being bad at a dance move as you walk up to a table of strangers might not be the entrance one is looking for.

Perhaps the hand clap: You walk up to a table and each of you burst into a round of mutual applause. But when do you stop?

The wave:  Not the hand wave, but the wave they do at stadiums. You enter a room of strangers and everyone stands one at a time. Yes it’s one-sided but very welcoming. It could encourage people to show up late for meetings.

The hand over heart is a gesture sometimes seen on stage by grateful performers or speakers as a way of thanking their audience. While often confused with cardiac trouble, it might fit the occasion.

But is there anything that could really replace the intimacy of the handshake: the grip, the ability to get close to someone, the chance to really size up a person from the start?

Should the coronavirus linger in a divided country unable to agree on much, perhaps exchanging a hand wipe, a pair of latex gloves and a thermometer are the best way to kick things off.