Friday, December 23, 2011

Element of Success...

The NFL football season is quickly coming to an end. The season started with 32 teams each vying for one of the coveted 10 playoff berths over the course of the 17-week season. Each team had a plan. Each team consisted of professional coaches and players who have achieved remarkable success in the past. Each team carefully prepared each week for their opponent. Each team played hard during their game.

At the end of the season there will be 10 playoff teams and 22 failures that will soon begin their preparation for the next season.
In business, there are countless examples of Fortune 500 (and start-ups) who spent tens of millions of dollars on research and development and tens of millions more on market research, packaging, advertising, building of production lines and creating inventory only to watch their new project fail miserably when it came to market.

There were some incredibly smart people who worked on these projects. There was ample funding. There was a perceived market need. It failed nonetheless.

Yet there were winners among the losers. Why?

Why did Facebook succeed and My Space fail? Why did Wikipedia succeed and Encarta fail? What caused people to embrace the inferior VHS tape format rather than the Betamax tape format?

Big budget movies with big name stars and big name directors fail every year. Some artists make it big while other wallow in obscurity.

Sometimes the product is truly great but the decision makers who control the distribution channels will turn it down...

John Grisham, Steven King, Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) together received hundreds of rejection slips before publishing a single book.

The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley were all rejected by record company executives, booking agents, and club owners and yet went on to become the greatest music icons over a span of 50 years.

There is no magic formula for success however there are a few common traits that all successful products, companies and people share.

To begin with, they are incredibly persistent. The success from failure stories are about people who believe in themselves, the idea, the company, and/or the product. Initial failure just motivates them to try harder. They refuse to take no for an answer.

An Episcopalian clergyman by the name of Richard Nelson Bolles wrote a book but was rejected by publishers so many times that he ended up self-publishing the book himself. He spent three years driving from town to town throughout America selling a few books out of the trunk of his old Chevy Nova. He did book signings at book stores and malls, talk-show interviews, and late night radio. One night he was booked on a late-night radio show and wasn’t scheduled until 3am. He considered canceling the interview because he still had a long drive to his next book signing in a town several miles away. He decided to do the interview. That night, Steve Katz, an associate producer for the The Tonight Show heard the interview as he drove home from a late night party. He was so impressed with the subject that he immediately called the radio station and convinced Rev. Bolles to cancel his speaking engagement and come to the studio the next morning.

Soon after, Richard Bolles was booked on the Johnny Carson show to promote his "new" book "What Color is Your Parachute?". The book is now in its 22nd edition, has been translated into 7 languages and has sold over 10 million copies while spending 288 consecutive weeks on the New York Times best seller list.

Richard Bolles was an overnight success...after grinding it out on the road for 3 years...
The second trait of successful people who had early failures is that they have an incredible work ethic. They understand that failure is not an option and that success is a byproduct of hard work and continued efforts.

I have known a lot of entrepreneurs who had some initial success only to lose it all because they got lazy thinking that their success would continue indefinitely. People, products and ideas must continuously evolve to continue on the path to success. What worked yesterday and today will not necessarily work tomorrow. There are a lot of people and companies who have created a "one-trick pony" but eventually their idea gets old and they need to create something new and fresh.

They may have been extremely good at what they did, but the world, markets and people change. The truly successful adapt to the changes and are always looking to create new ideas and products. Big companies are constantly trying new things and introducing new products even though they know that most of them will not succeed.

The final element of success is sheer luck. It was incredibly lucky for Richard Bolles to get an opportunity to be on the Johnny Carson show. The same holds true for so many actors, writers, and artists. A very few people win the lottery...while millions of others do not. However, the odds of success can be increased with hard work, perseverance, creativity, discipline.

If your business plan is to write a book and you hope to get invited to the Oprah show, then the odds are extremely long for the plan to work. However, if your plan is to study really hard, go to college and then to medical school and then to dental school to become an orthodontist, then your odds for success might be a little better.

A final note about success...real success shouldn’t be measured in sales, making the playoffs, crushing your opponents and/or building wealth share but rather how did your ideas, actions, and/or product/service help others (despite what Calvin thinks).

Something to reflect on as we enjoy our holidays and get ready for the upcoming year. Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where our goal is to help make you more successful.

Friday, December 16, 2011

One of Seven Billion...

On October 31, 2011, the population of the earth reached 7 billion human beings.

7 billion is a big number. To put it in perspective, if you had such a special talent that was shared by just one person out of a million....there would only be 7,000 people just like you in this world.

Yet with so many people, each one of us is an individual with our own thoughts, dreams and fears. We each have a history and a destiny. We are each unique in our own special way.

I was at the mall last Tuesday afternoon doing a bit of Christmas shopping when I happened to go into a store devoted to selling Lego blocks. Inside the store, there was a large play area with thousands of loose Lego blocks for customers, young and old, to experiment and play with.

Children and their parents were busy manufacturing different items using an assortment of building blocks. I stood by watching them through the store window as they carefully erected their various designs. There were no instructions or models. The patrons simply used their own imagination and creativity to create something from nothing.

As I stepped into the store, I asked several of the children what it was that they were making. Their responses were varied but precise. 

"I’m building a dinosaur", said one boy.

"I’m making a monster truck", another chimed in.

"It’s a special underwater car", explained a young girl.

Sometimes the creation looked like the artist’s description...and other times it didn’t...but who am I to judge someone else’s creativity?

If we were to be given a box of Legos, what is it that we would build? Would we build something practical like a house or a jet plane? Would we make something that is part fantasy and part reality, like a dragon or a special underwater car? Perhaps we’ll invent something that doesn’t exist but that we alone can only imagine.

When I was a young boy, we created geometric works of art using wheels and geared disks called a Spirograph. There were specific instructions that directed the "artist" to insert the pen into particular holes in the disk and then rotate the disk around a larger geared disk to create shapes. 

"Paint by numbers" was also popular, where the artist could recreate a painting by carefully applying a certain colored paint to a numbered spot on the outline drawing.

These games, as well as other crafts such as assembling model cars or planes, were designed to help release the creativity from inside all of us in a simple 1-2-3 method. Do step one, then complete step two before proceeding to step three...

What I have found is that most people generally like this step-by-step approach. They crave the predicted results from completing a known process. This for that. Quid pro quo.

Unfortunately, real-life isn’t predictable or a known process (at least for most people). There isn’t a "life-by-numbers" or a set of simple instruction telling us what to do next. We can create goals and measure the results but we first need to decide where we want to be at the end of the journey before we set our course of action to get there. And therein lies the rub...

Many of us are looking for leaders to tell us where we should go, what we should think or believe, or what we should value. We want answers. We want direction. On one hand, we want to know what lies beyond the horizon but we also fear the unknown or the unpredictable.

We want to look at the puzzle box to get an idea of what the puzzle will look like before we put all of the pieces together. We want to know what the end is before we begin.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet a gentleman named Randy Fields. Now you probably have never heard of Randy Fields but you may have heard of his former wife, Debbie Fields...Mrs. Fields of cookie fame and fortune.

He explained to me that Mrs. Fields Cookies relied on individuals who were excessively extroverted and who displayed a very outgoing personality. Although they could give an applicant a battery of personality tests to determine if they had what it would take to be a success at Mrs. Fields Cookies, Randy developed a much more reliable test. 

At the end of the first interview, without warning, the interviewer would simply ask the applicant to sing "Happy Birthday". If the applicant was too embarrassed, or sang too quietly or simply too mechanically, they were no longer considered as a potential employee at Mrs. Fields. 

I should (but don’t) have a simple test for anyone applying to work at OptiFuse. Give each applicant a blank piece of white paper and a fresh box of 64 crayons (the box with the build-in crayon sharpener in the back) and ask them to create something... anything... no instructions other than that. If the person just sat there waiting for me to tell them what to draw or how to draw it, then it would probably be a good indication of what to expect in the future from that person...someone who waited for instructions before acting.

I truly believe that if I had incorporated that exercise into my interview process many years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of grief and headaches. 

One of our core company philosophies that I like to explain to new hires is that OptiFuse has never fired an employee for making a wrong decision...however we have indeed parted ways with several employees who refused to make decisions at all. Everyone here is empowered to make decisions and contribute using their own special creativity.

As the earth continues to flatten, many process driven job functions are being outsourced to places where wages are lower than that of developed nations. The positions that will remain in those countries are those where critical thinking and creativity are the rule not the exception. 

Despite the best efforts of some, globalization is an e-mail that has been already sent...there is no way to stop or recall it. It’s a foregone conclusion. This is the new reality.

Our only hope to maintain our employment base is to develop thinkers and creators rather than doers.

I was indeed awe inspired by the children I saw playing with Legos at the mall. These are the same kids who will one day grow up to be inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, problem solvers and great thinkers. 

This Christmas perhaps we need to consider giving gifts (especially to children and young adults) that teach us to think and/or create rather than those that cause us to process or react. 

Maybe each person needs their very own box of crayons and blank sketch pad to create whatever inspires them.

Only in this way, will we allow ourselves to possibly stand above the other 7 billion inhabitants of this planet and be counted as a difference maker.

Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where as we try to develop big ideas for a big world.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Do We Buy?

Many a man thinks he is buying pleasure, when he is really selling himself to it.
~ Benjamin Franklin

They set up a table in the student center and offered free coffee to students who helped them to conduct a taste test. The first sample was a simple Columbian dark blend priced at $4.29 per pound. The second sample was a Sumatran dark roast price at $14.40 per pound, roughly three times the cost of the cheaper grind.

Forty participating students were asked to rate the two coffees on a scale of 1 to 10 and add any comments about the coffee.

At the end of the taste-test, the participating students was given a choice of a free full cup of coffee from either of the two test samples.

The results were tabulated and Dr. Santos and her students found that the participants rated the higher priced Sumatran coffee, on average, almost 3 points higher than the lesser cost Columbian coffee (8.6 versus 5.9). In addition, of the 40 test-tasters, 37 requested a cup of the higher priced Sumatran coffee as their reward for participating in the study.

So what makes this study so interesting?

Both of the coffee samples were the exactly same!

In this experiment, the participating students perceived that the more expensive coffee was better than that of lesser costing coffee although the two were identical in every way. The research subjects justified their higher ratings by believing that the coffee that cost more simply must be better.

I am currently searching for a new vehicle. The one I presently drive is starting to cost more and more to maintain as it gets older so it is time to make a change (it's now 9 years old with approximately 120K miles on it).

I suggested to several friends, family and associates that I am torn between two models both costing about the same price. One has significantly more features, a better warranty, more horsepower, more leg and head room and gets about the same gas mileage than the other and is less costly to maintain according to data supplied by Kelly Blue Book. 

My friends tell me that I am crazy to purchase the "better car" and I should instead purchase the "lesser car". Their reason: The "better" car is a Hyundai and the "lesser" car is a BMW.

The popular rationale for their opinion...while yes the features, performance, and warranty of the Hyundai might be's still a Hyundai and the other car is...well...a BMW so it must be better. 

I mention to my friends that, in reality, a Lexus is really a Toyota, an Infinity is really a Nissan, an Acura is really a Honda, and an Audi or Porsche is really a VW...but this argument doesn't hold sway with them. A BMW is better than a Hyundai...any day...period!

Why is it that we believe that if something is more expensive, it is simply better or more valuable than the less costly item?

In some cases, the additional cost may be true, due to taste, fashion or rarity. A "prime" steak is perhaps more flavorful to some than a regular "select" steak, a Dior Couture evening gown may exhibit more fashion to some than an off-the-rack prom dress sold at JC Penny and the 1913 Liberty Head nickel is worth a considerable sum to a coin collector (due to the fact that only 5 specimens are in existence today)...but it is still only worth a nickel if you try to spend it in vending machine.

However, I question those paying large premiums for items that have very little added functional benefit for the significantly higher cost. These items might include Craftsman tools, Henkel knives, or Titleist golf clubs. 

Unless you're perhaps a professional, these tools will not make you a better mechanic, chef or golfer. (I actually have a friend who has spent more money on his golf equipment than he spent for his current car...and he still doesn't regularly break 100 on the course!...I have often told him that he should think about spending some of his money on golf lessons rather than on golf act of futility on my part I suspect).

So why do we place so much value on a name brand?

Some people will argue that we simply get what we pay for...a higher price means it must be a higher quality product. Other will tell you that name brands have weathered the test of time and proven themselves over the years. Still others are brand loyal because their parents bought a particular brand and that's all they know (my mom used Tide detergent and it worked for her).

We may also be motivated to purchase higher cost items by political factors such as wanting to purchase domestically made products or those made by union labor. My father, for instance, refuses to shop at non-unionized grocery stores even though he may pay more for the exact same items.

For many of us, displaying a brand is a status symbol. We dress our babies in designer wear. We order margaritas made with premium tequila even though all we can taste is the lime juice. We send our children to expensive big name private universities, even though the education they receive there is perhaps no better than that of a lesser known school.

Status symbols show the rest of the world that we have wealth. It demonstrates to others that we're important. It helps us to feel good about ourselves.

This same notion leads us to purchase expensive coffee and imagine that it tastes better than less costly brand even though it's exactly the same.

Maybe it's time to rethink how we spend our hard-earned money. Perhaps if we did...we might have more of it at the end of the day.

Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we try to provide our customers with big value...not a big price.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Turn for the Best...

The other day I was having lunch with my friend Bob. During the course of our conversation, I asked him how his daughter Jenna was doing. Jenna was away at college studying to become an elementary school teacher. Now in her fifth year, she was planning on graduating this next May.

Bob told me that Jenna had returned home for the Thanksgiving holiday. She was visibly upset but she didn’t want to talk about it until after Thanksgiving day. So on Friday, she sat down with Bob and his wife Kathy.

"Mom and dad, I have something that I need really to talk with you about."

Bob told me that his stomach was in knots as he feared the worse...but he let her go on.

"I know that I’ve been in school now for over four years at a great expense to the both of you but..."

At this point she burst into tears and blurted out in one rambling sentence, "I just don’t want to be a teacher anymore...I know this is what I wanted to do four years ago...but I didn’t know back then what I know today...I should have figured it out after the first couple of years...but I thought teaching would eventually grow on me...but it didn’t...and now I don’t want to spend the next 30 years doing something I hate!..."

Bob and Kathy were, in one sense, relieved that Jenna’s news wasn’t something a lot more serious...but it was still a disappointment to the both of them. Although Jenna was attending a State university, the cost of tuition, room and board over the past four years was still nearing the $100,000 mark. To top it off, their son, Jack, was now a senior in high school and looking forward to attending college next year.

Bob and Kathy took turns interrogating Jenna in order to learn why she was now so disenchanted with teaching...perhaps in a final attempt to get her to reconsider her decision to quit the program...but Jenna just kept repeating that teaching was not what she wanted to do in her life and that she was just too impatient to work with small children.

After about an hour, the discussion turned away from trying to get Jenna to reconsider teaching, to what Jenna’s new career plans were and how much of her previous schooling could be salvaged and applied to her new field of study.

Jenna told her parents that she was still interested in helping people, but now she wanted to do it as a physical therapist. Her general education requirements had all been met over the last four years...however, she would need to take several prerequisite courses in life sciences, math, and chemistry as well as 28 course hours in her new major. This would mean that she would most likely be at school for at least another two years.

As Bob told me his story, I felt bad for Bob and Kathy’s new financial burdens. I tried to console him by reminding him that his daughter’s long-term happiness was indeed the most important thing here. 

"Bob", I replied, "Jenna would have been miserable for the next 40 years and I’m sure you and Kathy would have ended up paying a great toll for it in the end. It’s probably better to discover the truth now than to wait."

He looked at me and told me that he was actually proud of Jenna for having the intestinal fortitude to do something that she knew would be difficult. Instead of trying to please everyone else, she took a hard look at her situation, determined that she had made a wrong turn and decided that the best course of action was to just start over. 

"How many people would have the courage and heart to do that?", he asked me rhetorically. "It’ll be tough...but we can manage...besides...she has to do the hard work to get through this new curriculum."

The topic soon then turned to other things, but I couldn’t help but think about what Bob had said about people making hard decisions that change and impact their lives...despite the hardships it would surely bring in the short-term.

Many times we know that we’re traveling down the wrong path (or more aptly...a path that we know that isn’t right for us)...perhaps we’re in a bad marriage, or at job that we hate, or maybe we’re questioning our faith in God or chosen religious affiliation. We continue down this wrong path because changing course is hard and most likely it will negatively affect other people along the way...people that we love and care about.

So do we continue down this wrong path because of duty and/or guilt or do we try to change our situation to hopefully bring us happiness? 

Often we choose to continue on living in our unhappy situation due to fear and/or a sense of duty or obligation.

We stay in the bad marriage because we fear spending the rest of our life alone. We worry about what our friends and relative would think. We think that our kids would rather have parents who remain together and fight rather than parents who are civil and are separated. We believe that our spouse will one-day change and happiness will suddenly arrive.

We remain in a dead-end job putting up with belligerent bullying bosses and low pay because of loyalty. We have low self-esteem thinking that no other company would ever hire us. We read in the newspaper about the high unemployment and rationalize that we need the money more than a rewarding place to ply our trade. We have financial obligations so we cannot take a risk. 

We perhaps grew up with a particular religious affiliation so we stay with it although our beliefs have long since changed. We rationalize our behavior by telling ourselves that our faith is just waning as we go through the empty motions while at service. We can’t leave the congregation...what will other people think? We fear of being ostracized and outcast in the community.

So we continue down our paths....helplessly lost...unwilling to admit that we’ve made a mistake or in constant fear that the new path may be worse than the path we’re currently on.

Maybe we will muster the courage to say "enough is enough"...go back to the beginning and start all over again (although like in Jenna’s situation...we rarely need to start over from square one but rather we might only need to take few steps back)...

Sure...the road we’re currently on may lead us to the place we want to go...but may not...don’t be afraid to change course if need be...

Happiness is about being on the right path with the right people...choose your path well...

Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we hope that our paths will someday meet.