When I started my software company, I didn’t even realize I was starting a software company. I’d been in the PC service business for a couple of years, and had a customer with a particular problem. I figured I could solve it for him. (Solving problems: that’s one way to define success.)
So I bought a compiler with a built-in templating language, taught myself to program and built the solution for him. He liked it so much he told some other folks in his industry about it, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, my PC service company had morphed into a software company.
I knew I needed help, so I agreed to partner with a guy who was better at selling than I was. (In retrospect, I must’ve been pretty good at selling too, since I didn’t know how to program when I started. The most important person to sell is yourself.) Anyway, Ron got on the phone and started dialing for dollars while I worked on making the program better.
Riding the Blue Whale
Ron was hardcore. He’d dial that phone 100 times a day talking to leads, turning them into prospects, converting them to customers. I know I couldn’t do that. Cold calling is hard work. But he seemed to be able to do it without it destroying him. He was one of the most relentlessly optimistic people I have ever met. Nothing seemed to get him down.
One time, we packed my giant Chevy van, (the Blue Whale), with computers and tables and banners and floppy disks, and drove halfway across the country from central Texas to San Diego for a trade show. (I think the distance is roughly a jillion miles.)
Since the van was so big, we just took turns driving and sleeping. He’d lay down on the floor in the back and sleep while I drove, then we’d switch and just keep on trucking. I don’t remember much about the trade show, but I do remember that stretch of I-10 from San Antonio to Tucson seemed to go on forever.
A Marketing Misfit
We kept growing, so we needed to hire more salesmen. Then we needed tech support. Then we needed office help. It all just kind of snowballed. And there I am, coding my brains out, writing user manuals and trying to manage a roomful of crazy salesmen. Oh, and marketing.
What I didn’t know about marketing could fill an airplane hangar. If it had to do with marketing and was something you should know, I didn’t know it.
I have always been a little bit of a misfit, always a little more skeptical than most folks. I was also convinced that I was more rational than most people. (Guys who write code always believe that about themselves.) As it turns out, I am exactly as irrational as the rest of the population – most of the time. I just occasionally have moments of pure logic in the ocean-fog of instinctive click-whirr behavior which is the bane of humanity.
So I sucked at marketing. I was the guy who layered on the description of features, completely unaware that people don’t give a rip about features. No one buys the color of a car. They buy the feeling they get when they look at that car color.
All those lessons though were in the far distant future.
Booze & Mr. Metaphor
My tech support guy Ken wasn’t very technical, but he had a vocabulary somewhere between Shakespeare and Miriam Webster. He had this soothing way about him that the customers seemed to appreciate. (I was singularly lacking in “soothingness”.)
I called Ken “Mr. Metaphor.” Bizarre metaphors poured out of him like water over Niagara. (See, that was a simile. He would have done a metaphor and it would’ve been way better.) Ken had a weird, sad childhood that I think scarred him permanently. I considered him a friend and he seemed to look up to me. Years later, after he moved back to California, he asked me to be in his wedding. When he passed away, I wept.
RIP, Mr. Metaphor.
One salesman was a raging alcoholic. He was destroying his second marriage when he worked for me. Some days he would show up sober and could talk the ears off a donkey. I always thought his form of salesmanship was little more than hucksterism. But, (I told myself), he was better than me.
I realize now that he wasn’t.
I dropped by his house one day to check on him late in the afternoon, and he had already emptied his first fifth of vodka for the day. He was a marvelously talented and skilled deceiver, as are most addicts. He’d spent his entire adult life abusing his body with some form of chemical or another. Before I met him, it was drugs. When I knew him, it was booze. Today? I dunno. Food maybe.
It was from him I learned the very valuable lesson that you cannot care for someone else’s life more than they will care for it themselves. That is a recipe for utter frustration.
Youth, Beauty & Great Hair
Another salesman was this kid who had moved to central Texas from the wilds of New Jersey. Never had a father in his life and I guess he looked up to me as a father-figure. Which was pretty hysterical because I was in my early 30s at the time and had barely figured anything out. But I guess in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. He paid an inordinate amount of attention to his hair. I thought he probably had a future as a hairdresser.
He was a beautiful person, extremely outgoing and pretty good on the phones. I could tell he desperately wanted approval and I tried to give it to him. I recently saw where he is quite a successful real estate agent. He has a beautiful wife and a lovely family and I suspect has made a good life for himself. I like to think I had a tiny part in that.
But my best salesman by far was a teenager named Andy. I hired him because I needed more salesmen and his sister was already working for me.
You know how some people just seem to have been dealt a raw deal in life? Andy was the opposite of that. Andy was charismatic, gorgeous, physically strong, outgoing and had that “it” factor that just made people want to listen to him, look at him and do whatever he said. It broke my heart when Andy left, but honestly, he was destined to be the leader of his own pack, not just a sled dog in mine.
Take You By Surprise, Make You Realize
I guess perhaps my favorite person though was the woman who was our bookkeeper/office manager. Her name was Amanda, and she was the wife of a friend.
She was one of those people who was born to manage the affairs of other people. And I mean that in the best possible way. She had no need to be The Boss. She was just very, very, VERY good at putting things in order and keeping them in order. Fortunately for her, my partner and I were very good at making messes that she cleaned up. She used to bitch and moan about the state of affairs, but I think she actually enjoyed converting chaos to order.
She completely overhauled my files and made it so that I could find anything in an instant. I actually used her filing system for years after that. She took my books and turned them into something that a real company would be able to use, rather than piles of receipts stuck on a nail.
And she loved to play. I can remember standing at one end of the long hall that ran down the middle of our office and whipping a foam ball at the back of her head. She sat with her back to me in the big room at the end of the hall, and when her door was open, I could fling that ball down the hall while she was sitting at her desk.
For me, the challenge was to try to throw it straight enough to get through the door. Bonus points for hitting her.
Most women would probably have killed me, but Amanda would just fling it right back. She had a wicked sense of humor, and a vocabulary to match. I can remember days where it seemed all we did was laugh, and Amanda was the biggest instigator of those laughs.
Lord, did we ever have fun.
All True Stories End in Death
My partner and I eventually split the company in two. He had a vision for taking it one direction, I had another. I spent the better part of the years since then thinking that I had failed in that company. But looking back, I can see that I succeeded almost beyond my dreams. (Almost…)
I was working with people I loved, doing something I loved, somewhere I enjoyed being, in an industry I loved. The only thing I would have changed is the amount of money I generated from it. That could have been better. But frankly, I had way more success than I realized at the time.
Perhaps that is why meditation has become so important to me. I am learning to Be Here Now.
Thinking back on those days, I was so greatly blessed and so blissfully unaware of it because I was focused on the bank account and the future. I missed the Now.
No, it didn’t last forever. Nothing real ever does. Yet if I had to define success, I think I would say that being surrounded by friends all day every day is at least part of it. And I counted all those people as friends. Not merely employees, but friends. I got to work with my friends all day, every day.
That’s pretty cool. And pretty successful.