Sunday, July 17, 2011

Start up - Shut down

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road... unless you fail to make the turn.” - author unknown

For the past two years, the road I’ve been navigating has made San Francisco’s Lombard Street look like a straight line. But instead of writing about the continuing saga of finding steady employment, I want to share some observations made over the past three months while working for an entrepreneur and his start-up venture, “PK Interactive” or

The mission was to sell the digital platforms (that’s tech-speak for web, blog, Facebook, Twitter & podcasts) for a nationally known radio host. PKI was seeking someone with sales experience who would be comfortable picking up the phone and “cold calling” potential clients. It was clear I wasn’t the perfect candidate. Still, with personal funds at stake, the entrepreneur took a chance on me and I will be forever grateful to him.

The boss was a big thinker, so I thought big, too. Rather than concentrate on small accounts, I went after the big guns like Procter and Gamble,, and Zappos Shoes. In broadcast language, I became a national sales manager, and targeted every conceivable category that would want to reach the audience our client attracted. As our client reached older adults, I reached out to healthcare companies, travel and cruise companies, financial institutions, pharmaceuticals, supplements, and cosmetics. That’s when the real learning process started.

I quickly discovered that major clients don’t just have one advertising contact, they have several. There’s an agency for Out of Home (OOH), broadcast, print, creative, and digital. Often, one agency has no idea of what the other agency is doing and though I could sell both broadcast and digital, it often meant trying to coordinate with two agencies. Many media buyers simply ignored me, some took the time to direct me to the appropriate decision maker and some were kind enough to explain how the game works to this self-admitted rookie. I listened, I asked questions, researched demographic and geographical targeting, developed strategies for my outreach program and I started selling. But I knew that I wasn’t generating nearly enough income to keep the company rolling (let alone pay my bills). I knew we were being sustained by the boss’s personal funds and the hope of landing a few more major clients.

It didn’t happen. And after six months, PKI closed up shop. But there is no anger in my words, only gratitude. I was allowed to grow outside of my comfort zone. I was allowed to learn some new technologies. And I had the privilege of working alongside some of the most talent and professional young adults I have ever encountered. I was energized when I was around them. The culture of PKI was like many radio stations. Laughter in the hallways, noontime lunch treks, after hour’s drinks and lots of texting, Facebook chats and camaraderie. There were no hallway gripe sessions, no idle gossip, and if someone said “this is confidential” it stayed that way. These talented graphic artists, copy writers, IT geeks and code developers were half my age, but never considered me the “old man”. Well, if they did, they never said it out loud. We friended each other at work, on Facebook, Foursquare and even Google+. By the way, they are all looking for work, too.

The only real difference between me and the rest of the crew was I wore Dockers to work every day and they wore jeans. Their work ethic was as professional as I have ever encountered. They were timely, focused, willing to stay late when needed and passionate about their craft and our clients. I never heard a temper tantrum and I never heard someone snap at another; I simply saw professionalism.

The other difference was in the way we handled the news of our impending departure. As a baby boomer, stability is always on my mind and I was immediately concerned about keeping a roof over my head. The PKI crew? They just appreciated the great ride they had over the past six months. I’m not suggesting I always thought in terms of a career and these young men and women are seeking only jobs. They just have a different view of what constitutes a career and I think because of that, they enjoy life more than me and my fellow boomers.

PKI was staffed with as diverse of a group of individuals as you’d ever meet:

Robert, the boss. Visionary. Always twenty moves ahead.

Roy. CFO. I lost count how many times he brought bagels or tacos to work.

Chuckles, always looking for an excuse to party.  If he couldn't find one he'd start one.

Dr. Love, his running gag was to ignore his New York upbringing and claim Guatemalan Citizenship. He also knows more Yiddish than I ever will. Poor guy, I’d point to a spot on his shirt, he’d look down, and I’d tweak his nose. Got him about 4 times.

The Venezuelan, with the largest collection of uploaded music I’ve ever seen.

Nacho the office Mom – juggling career and kids.

K-So with a kind word for everyone.

Jesse – we never did come up with a nickname for her. She brought me a souvenir from her trip to Spain that I will always treasure. She knew me for all of a week and still thought to bring me something.

Kristen, the cheerleader with the “can-do” attitude and the first to arrive.

Everett – a code writer who appreciated Star Trek for the classic lessons of life.  I'm not sure anyone understood his philosophical commentary.

Aamir, with the patience of a Saint. He needed it, because he dealt with the client every day.

Shay, the quiet one with a gleam of mischief in his eyes and a Hawaiian shirt on Fridays. He is an inspiring husband and father who drove to Austin every time his son played  t-ball.

I learned from each and every one of these people. I was the “grasshopper” and they were the “master,” although I wonder if some would understand the Kung-Fu analogy (unless it was in the Panda version).  As for their level of professionalism, even though our boss informed us of the company’s demise on Thursday, we all came back on Friday. Athough off payroll, I will go in on Monday to help make sure the transition of my accounts goes smoothly. I owe that to the boss. Apparently, several others feel that way, as they will be coming into the office on Monday as well. In fact, my friend Dr. Love has already texted that he’s bringing me some of his wife’s special Sunday night lamb dinner. By the way, I dubbed Jorge with that nickname because he handled the love department – customer service. And I’m going to save a bottle or two of my home brewed beer for him, although he will have to wait for another two weeks.

These are the quality individuals I came to respect over the past several months and I will miss seeing them every day with their positive approach to life.   I think my new friends would appreciate the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars”. Brighter days are ahead, my friends. But you already know that.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pass the Life Preserver

John Donne, one of the most famous Metaphysica...Image via WikipediaPoet John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island”.  I’m not so sure he was right.
At a July 4th party with neighbors and friends, I pretty much felt like the odd man out.  My fellow partiers are fully indoctrinated Texans.  I, on the other hand, still have plenty of New England moderate liberalism flowing through my veins.

Once upon a time, we were taught to vote for the best candidate.  Today, we are drawn to the candidate who belongs to the “right” party.  Right or wrong, on target or completely adrift is no longer relevant; only the party affiliation. 

America has been at war for more than ten years, authorized by both Republican and Democratic presidents and a legislative branch that authorized the expenses.  Yet, one side of the debate has the audacity to blame the current President for the entire deficit and economic conundrum.  More amazingly, as the President tries to tactfully back out of Afghanistan (the longest war in American History), there are politicians who want to keep spending on the war while reducing social programs at the expense of the American people.  The endgame?  We’ll continue to lag in education, we’ll continue to fall behind China and India with innovation and manufacturing, and we’ll wonder how our nation has become a Third World country.

It would be comical if it wasn’t so terrifying.  Political factions, it would appear, would rather “bankrupt” the US government to avoid raising the debt limit.  I understand their desire to reduce spending.  Really, after being unemployed for 18 months, I still deal with my own mini-crisis.  But I also understand that cutting expenses wasn’t enough; at some point I had to bring in extra revenue.  Peter Sellers played a wonderful character, Chauncey Gardner, in the movie “Being There”.  The farce of the movie was an intellectually challenged gardener used metaphors that politicians translated into brilliant economic philosophy.  So, I suspect Chauncey would say, “to cut the blade of grass is not sufficient, one must water to encourage growth”.

Have you ever heard a politician say, “I don’t love my country?”  I don’t think so.  Yet, Republicans are threatening to plunge the government into bankruptcy, creating the potential for devastating long term effects on the US economy.  Some experts say such an action (or inaction) could crash Wall Street and create a depression equal to the 1929 stock market crash.   Where’s the love?  The Democrats aren’t any better.  They need to accept that budget cuts in key programs are critical to the success of restoring our out of balance debt.  Republicans need to accept that some taxes and exemptions need to end.
Part of the problem is with our leadership.  Even those of us who voted for Obama have been disappointed. He has stood on the sideline while Congress defended their side of the aisle.  Once he got involved, it would appear after much cajoling, the message got out that he would be willing to make “tough” budget cuts if Congress would eliminate some major loopholes.  A voice of reason?  Not really, since the extreme left still won’t budge on certain cuts; and the extreme right doesn’t want to eliminate their beloved loopholes and offend their big business contributors.

In the 2010 election, America sent a message to President Obama.  Republicans felt they were vindicated with their victories throughout our nation.  Yet, they are squandering their opportunity with petty bickering within their ranks.  The coffee drinkers, the tea drinkers and those who like to “sweeten” their beverages with moderate compromise.  The latter of course, attacked for their willingness to do what’s right for America.
Here’s the really sad part, who wants to take a bet that from one of our highest election turnouts in 2008, the 2012 vote will be one of the lowest?  What message will politicians take from this?  No doubt they’ll tell us the message is heard, partisans of both parties are unhappy and not to worry, we’ll do more of the same.

John Donne continued in his poem, “Because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”   Pass the life preserver and pray we’re not aboard the Titanic.