Profiting from ‘The Profit’

This past Monday (10/20) Marcus Lemonis paid a visit to Camden, NJ. He addressed the graduates from the Latin American Economic Development Association’s Entrepreneurial Development Program. The event took place at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Croc Community Center.

In the interest of full disclosure: both my father and I both serve as LAEDA instructors. The EDP program is for actual entrepreneurs who are either starting or operating real small businesses in the South Jersey area. Many readers no doubt know Mr. Lemonis as the guy with the big check book on the CNBC program The Profit; he’s invested close to $7M of his own money over the course of two seasons. Interestingly, little of the advice he gave to the entrepreneurs had to do with economics.

Mr. Lemonis delivered inspirational comments without notes, but with a host of sage advice. He explained that he lost 55 lbs during one summer while in high school. A need to “re-invent himself” inspired him to do so. At the time he figured other people wanted him to slim down. “How many times do we re-invent ourselves to please others”? he asked. He used this vignette to segue into how important it is for people to re-invent themselves for the right reasons.

The most moving part of Mr. Lemonis’ speech centered on vulnerability. It’s critical for leaders to be cognizant of his/her weaknesses. He admitted to a room of strangers his issues with his weight, how he’s struggled in his personal relationships and that he’s had one failed marriage. In spite of his myriad successes as a businessman and television personality he acknowledged even he suffers from a lack of confidence on occasion. That’s an extraordinary admission. As a CEO he leads many people. In addition he invests large sums of money in failing businesses in front of a world-wide audience. One wonders how prosperous he’d be without any confidence issues.

Based on the topics already cited, it’s not surprising that the core of his speech dealt with the topic of character. A relentless commitment to self-improvement plays a key role here. “Your employees put tremendous faith in your decision making.” The most surprising bit of advice he delivered to the group involved human resources. “If you haven’t worked for someone else, you’re not an entrepreneur. You need to know what it’s like to be fired.” He challenged those with difficult employees. “When people come to work for you and they fail, it’s no one’s fault but yours.” Leaders must do everything possible to ensure the success of his/her employees. “Before firing someone you need to look yourself in the eye and say you’ve done everything to make them successful.”

During the question and answer period one of the business owners asked Mr. Lemonis about fear. “Welcome to the club,” he replied. While everyone knows it takes money to run a business, it also takes a lot of character. The fact Mr. Lemonis’ comments focused on the later over the former shows its criticality. As he eloquently pointed out, “When you’re down and out you need to pick yourself up.” While money certainly helps, it’s impossible to do so without character.

The Poodle Professor – Part II

Who could possibly be more qualified to watch an 18 year old dog for a few weeks than I? It turned out to be much more of a challenge than I’d anticipated. Did I mention that none of my dogs happened to be poodles? Just what’s it like caring for a miniature poodle? Think the canine equivalent to a surly alcoholic on steroids.

            How can I put this one delicately? Paris’ digestive functions were very regular. So much so that I often joked that I should start eating her dog food. I would ask readers not to take that point seriously. Please do not start sending me cases and cases of dog food.

            One day I came home for lunch and decided to take Paris outside. Unfortunately, on this occasion her “regularity” was a little off. A situation developed where I had to clean her. It made me sad to see such an elegant looking dog who carried herself with such class in a “dirty” state. I did my duty, no pun intended. Following this, Paris took an immense dislike to me. I can’t say I blame her. If someone speaking a language I couldn’t understand took a wet paper towel and started probing my nether regions, I wouldn’t be signing up for that person’s fan club either; nor they for mine for that matter.

            Paris suddenly morphed into a very different dog. She became a recluse in her own bed. She wouldn’t leave it on her own. When she needed to go out she’d sit up. I’d carry her to the yard. She used to prowl the back as though she were discovering a new world for the first time every occasion she ventured out there. Not any more. She would do her business and sit down. I’d take her inside and place her in front of her bowl. She’d sniff for a second and then wheel around racing out of the kitchen to the living room and into her bed. I didn’t know what to make of this. I don’t recall every hearing about a dog who passed up the opportunity for “num-a-nums”, as my step mom called them. Paris did.

            This went on for the next day. I’d take her out, put her in front of her bowl, and she’d bolt back to her bed. Why wouldn’t she eat or drink anything?

 And then there was the night crying. She had a beautiful plush bed in the living room. I slept on the couch next to it, just so she wouldn’t get frightened…more than usual. It didn’t help. Paris suffered from separation anxiety. She’d get up and start crying whenever my step mother wasn’t around.  Every night she’d whimper. Sometimes she’d go on for hours. One thing I really don’t like to hear is a female crying while in my presence during the middle of the night; be that female human or dog. It just gnaws away at my self-esteem. I tried to settle Paris down as best I could. I attempted to sing to her with the hope that she’d at least be happy when I stopped. No success. I realized she would eventually calm down and fall asleep right around the time I needed to get up and go to work. Before readers go back a few paragraphs to see if (s)he missed something: this is a story about an 18 year old dog; not an infant child.

            When Paris wouldn’t eat or drink anything from her bowl, I worried about her health. In human years she would’ve been 90. Lack of nutrients would certainly take their toll, but not before the dehydration. I tried putting her by her bowls in the kitchen repeatedly, but she’d just scamper back to her bed. I didn’t understand what was going on. Did Paris’ Gallic temperament inspire her to go on a hunger strike to protest my care?

            Paris and her human family lived in Slidell, Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit. She survived one of the most devastating natural disasters in our nation’s history. I started to wonder if I’d be able to survive two weeks with her.  

             Before resorting to renting an IV pump, I recalled that Paris liked the cereal I ate. While she lay in her bed I took a handful of it and put it under her nose. She gobbled it! Success! I brought over some more. She munched that also! I felt so happy she dined on something. I then thought I figured out the problem. I brought her water bowl over to her bed and put it in front of her face. After a little coaxing she drank! I then brought over her bowl and spoon fed her. She ate rapaciously.

            On the day before my dad and step mom were due home, I sat on the couch exhausted. I think I’d gotten about five hours sleep over the previous week. I gazed at Paris soundly slumbering in her bed. Since this was mid-afternoon she dozed quietly. Her crying didn’t start until I got ready for bed. I didn’t get it. She would rather die of starvation than leave her bed. I spent hours trying to comfort her and make her feel okay and she didn’t seem to care. I couldn’t believe how ridiculous she behaved.

            In spite of my physical and emotional exhaustion, I had a moment of clarity. I realized the way I lived my life wasn’t much different from how Paris did. How many times in my own life had I not taken risks in favor of staying in my comfort zone? How often had I decided to forgo having fun in favor of watching television and falling asleep on the couch? I would add: this was the same couch I sat in at the time. And the point that really got to me: I could understand how my mother must’ve felt whenever she tried to help me and I took it for granted. I became irritated by a dog’s behavior. I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience one’s child behaving that way. She’d passed away two years before. I’ll never have the opportunity to tell her that I finally understand why she’d get upset with me in my younger days.

            To this day, my experience poodle sitting was one of the most educational of my life. I’m a better person today for having it. They say that the elderly have a lot of wisdom to impart. I suppose the same goes for older dogs. I think she did prove my opening quotation a bit wrong, though. She wasn’t my enemy, she was my teacher, but I’d have to say I did consider her a friend, albeit the four legged variety.

            I figured when my step mom and Dad got home, Paris would return to her usual self. None of us realized at the time that she was terminally ill. She passed away on June 9, 2012 following a long and happy life.

            My step mother has a magnet on her refrigerator. It’s a picture of Paris soaking wet and sitting on a body board. “She loved the water,” my step mom said. Whenever I see it I think about how brave a dog would have to be in order to jump in the water and then sit on a surf board. I learned that in addition to teaching me a few things about leaving my comfort zone, it turned out Paris wasn’t afraid to lead by example, either.    


The Poodle Professor – Part I

There’s an old saying that goes,

            No man is my friend

            No man is my enemy

            Every man is my teacher.

            The same aphorism could be applied to some of our four legged friends as well. My experience came from an 18 year old Miniature Poodle named Paris.

            Paris belonged to my step mother. When she moved in with my dad and me, Paris joined her. I hadn’t lived with a dog in over twenty years. I looked forward to it. I’m a dog lover, but never spent enough time at home to get one, myself. When Paris joined us, I treated her as my own.

            My last dog was a male Cairn Terrier. Paris was roughly the same size, but female. This would be easy, I figured. There are some drugs on the market that come with an FDA Black Box warning. I quickly learned that miniature poodles should come with a similar one. Most people think of poodles as “girly” dogs. Not so. A poodle is the kind of dog you work your way up to after getting bored raising Rottweilers and Pit Bulls. Miniature Poodles can be quite the temperamental hand full.

            Paris loved my step mother. I didn’t always think of it as a healthy kind of love, however. On occasion, it crossed over into obsession. I remember one day my dad and I watched her during the football playoffs. She behaved like a little canine angel. When my step mom walked in the door, she became a different dog. Paris stared at her and barked and barked and barked as she talked to my dad. I tried petting Paris, but my efforts seemed to make her crave her owner’s attention that much more. She flicked my hand off with her head. My step mother picked her up and cuddled her for a few moments before putting her back down on the couch. She then went out to dinner with my dad.

            Hell hath no fury like a poodle scorned. As Paris was too old to jump off the couch I set her down on the floor. She walked around the house, searching every room looking for my step mother. When she realized she’d left Paris laid down in front of the couch and cried FOR A WHOLE HOUR! Not being proficient in the field of canine psychology I did my best to ameliorate her. I brought out her toys, I petted her behind the ears, I brought over her dinner, but nothing seemed to work. I finally gave up. I tried turning up the television so I could at least enjoy the game, but it didn’t help. You know it’s bad when you’re watching playoff football, the home team scores and you can’t hear the roar of the crowd over a small dog’s lugubrious lamentations.

            As upset as Paris would get at the departure of her owner, she’d show the same degree of cheerfulness upon her return. Due to her advanced age, Paris had difficulty hearing. She sensed people’s presence through smell. When we’d walk in the door she’d lay quietly in her bed for a few moments. Her nose would suddenly face the ceiling. She’d sniff madly picking up my stepmother’s fragrance. Her feet would then move so fast a visitor would’ve mistaken her for a puppy. Her paws would move rapidly in various directions as she tried to sit up. After tripping over herself several times, she’d finally get into a sitting position. Then she’d howl. You read that right. She wouldn’t bark. She’d howl. She’d continue wailing until my step mother picked her up and showered her with attention.

            I think had Paris been born human she would’ve been an engineer. She certainly would’ve bested me at Tetris ®, that’s for sure. She had a number of plush toys in her doggie bed. Every now and then she’d sit up and start crying. Her front paws moving as fast as Buddy Rich’s hands during a drum solo. She’d re-arrange the toys to make a surrogate mattress for herself. That’s a pretty good accomplishment for a small animal. I’ve known engineers over the years who couldn’t make something work with the benefit of blue prints and manuals.

            One May, my father and step mom took a trip to the New Orleans area to visit her family. They asked me if I’d watch Paris. I reveled in the opportunity. I got along well with her. She seemed to like me. What could go wrong? There’s an old Jewish saying: “One parent can raise ten children, but ten children can’t raise one parent.” During that month I discovered that one single guy can’t house sit one poodle.

                                                To Be Continued  

The Genius of the Artist

“Talent, Proust says. I would say luck and much labor.” With these words novelist Sir V. S. Naipaul concluded his Nobel Valedictory Lecture in 2001. I remember being struck by this unusual choice of words the first time I read the speech he entitled “Two Worlds”. I thought how extraordinary it was that someone who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature would credit this accomplishment to mere chance, if you will, and the age-old adage of “hard work.” That’s quite a remarkable display of abasement, especially from an Oxford graduate. Granted, Mr. Naipaul was reared among humble surroundings in his native Trinidad, but that notwithstanding: he had just been placed in the same pantheon of such incomparable writers as Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Surely, having his work judged to be of the same caliber as these timeless novelists couldn’t be attributed merely to luck.

Or could it? Not every recipient of the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature is a household name. I should point out that Mr. Naipaul now finds himself among the ranks of such forgotten writers as Selma Lagerloff, Theodore Momsen, and Christolph von Eucken. Not to mention it’s very first recipient in 1901: Sully Prodhomme. The runner up that year went on to become much more well known. His name was Leo Tolstoy.

Just as strange, Naipaul’s greatest literary influence and author to whom he is most frequently identified with never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, either. You may also recognize his name: Joseph Conrad.

Many other famous writers who are widely read today were never honored with a Nobel Prize. Perhaps the most conspicuous being James Joyce who authored Ulysses, a novel some would call the most influential publication of the Twentieth Century. Additionally, the very well known Marcel Proust whom Naipaul chose to cite in his “Two Worlds” speech never received recognition from the Nobel academy; this in spite of his ten-volume epic masterpiece Remembrances of Things Past.

While I’m sure literature students would describe the works of these writers as somewhat “difficult to comprehend” I suspect very few would deny these men possessed great talent. With that in mind I thought that perhaps there was something to Naipaul’s thoughts on luck after all.

But what is luck? The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as: good fortune; success due to chance. I think that anyone who has read Naipaul’s seminal work–A House for Mr. Biswas–, would be hard pressed to call the quality of that finished product “success due to chance.” Aside from the critics’ requisite comparisons to Conrad, this 1960 masterpiece has also drawn numerous comparisons to Charles Dickens. When one looks at the way Naipaul described the plight of the poor I supposed one can understand the parallels, but it’s hard to imagine any physical setting farther removed from Victorian England that mid-twentieth century Trinidad.

On the other hand, how then do we define talent? I consulted the same source—in homage to Mr. Naipaul’s alma mater of course–and found the following definition: “a special aptitude or faculty.” During the course of his lecture, Naipaul made references at both the beginning and conclusion of his speech to passages from Proust’s work of literary criticism Against Sainte-Beuve. The first one reads:

The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody that delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline. Those who are obsessed by men who are gifted…Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable them finally to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down….

It seemed to me that this example of Proustian eloquence could aptly apply to any number of Naipaul’s works, but for the sake of consistency I will specifically refer to A House for Mr. Biswas. There is no denying that it meets Proust’s criteria as coming from “inside.” The detail in the descriptions of events in the life of a young boy and his subsequent journey into adulthood are either semi-autobiographical or the result of a monumental imaginative ability. The fact that the protagonist is a poor man of Indian ancestry and just happens to aspire to a career as a writer unmistakably found their source from inside Mr. Naipaul’s consciousness and recollection of his early years. The depth and poignancy contained in this story of a man on an unwavering quest to own a home of his own are unmistakably the work of a very talented writer. Some, including myself, would argue a work of genius.

How then are we to define genius? Most of you are probably assuming I’d elaborate on James Joyce’s statement about how “a man of genius makes no mistakes, they are all volitional and are portals to discovery,” but I thought I’d take a different route. The definition that I like the best comes from the wise learned philosopher—who also played bass guitar on the old O-Jays records—Anthony Jackson. He explained that there are three components of genius. The first two would conform nicely with Mr. Naipaul’s so-called luck. Mr. Jackson said that the primary element of genius is an original style on the part of the artist. The second component of genius involves possessing the technical ability to execute that unique style. In my view it is the third segment of genius that is by far the most important. It is also significantly different from the others for a reason of singular importance: the first two can be innate. The third component of genius is persistence. It is the persistence to push, or more appropriately, to force your ideas onto an intractable world that says, “just what do you think you’re doing?”

President Calvin Coolidge had a famous quote about never giving up that went as follows:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful person with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Was Proust right when he said that talent is what makes for great writing? Was Napaul correct that luck and hard-work are what will make for successful writers? The innate factor of talent is always fixed. Either we possess it or we do not. Events are to a large extent capricious and will inevitably be left to chance. Awards and so-called honors will be distributed with the same degree of scientific precision that goes into predicting the weather. It is the persistence and determination to force your ideas onto a world that may not at first be receptive to them that will make all the difference. Talent, Proust says, Luck and Much Labour, Naipaul says, I say both so long as persistence supercedes all.

When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough

In the early 1940’s executives at Gibson USA decided that the company needed a new slogan. As one of the premiere guitar manufacturers in the world they wanted a catch phrase that would really capture the essence of what their company was all about. So their Marketing Department got together and came up with a phrase that they believed did just that. “Only a Gibson is good enough!” they proudly declared. It’s a good slogan: “Only a Gibson is good enough.” The company’s executives didn’t just like it: they loved it! They decided not to just use it in print advertisements; they had it painted it on the actual guitars during the production process. From that day forward, everyone who purchased a Gibson guitar would see the words, “Only a Gibson is good enough” featured prominently on the head stock. I don’t mean to repeat it so much, but it is a good slogan. I’d have to say that it’s almost the best I’ve ever heard.

Marketing Execs at Gibson’s chief rival thought that it was a pretty good slogan, also. In fact, executives at Epiphone were concerned that it was going to lure customers away from their company. So they realized they needed to come up with a new company catch phrase. After doing some research, and a very clever bit of benchmarking, they came with a new slogan: “Epiphone…when ‘good enough’ just isn’t good enough.” That’s the best slogan I ever heard. “Only a Gibson is good enough,” never appeared on another Gibson guitar.

Gibson learned the hard way that priding one’s self on mediocrity doesn’t lead down the path to success. As we’ve discussed here, we live in an era where the expression work ethic is an oxymoron. Dave Palmeroy, A Nashville session bassist, once commented that “Bass players should look at the minimum number of notes they can play in a song and then play half of them,” but many people today take that approach to their jobs and to life. That just isn’t going to cut it anymore these days. In order to be successful you have to push yourself to do your best all the time.

As an example of this philosophy, I’d like to use an anecdote from the life of a gentleman I work with. Bob Grazioli began his professional career as an electrician’s apprentice. On his first job in that field he worked for a gentleman whose daughter he happened to be dating. (You can say what you want about Bob, but you can’t tell me he’s not brave. My grandfather was awarded two Purple Hearts in WWII, but I’d have to say Bob is the bravest man I ever knew.) Bob was installing an electrical socket into a kitchen. After he put the box in he asked his boss if it was “good enough.” His boss looked at him and asked, “Is it perfect?” Bob replied, “I don’t know.” “Then how do you know if it’s good enough?” Bob got the message. He won his bosses’ respect, became a professional electrician, and he got the girl. (He and his then-bosses’ daughter have been married for over twenty years.) Bob Grazioli is currently a Maintenance Supervisor for an international manufacturing company. I guess that socket was perfect.

Gibson USA also got the message. In 1957 they were facing stiff competition from an upstart rival called Fender. At the time, all guitar companies used single coil pick-ups in their instruments. They enabled the sound of the guitar to be amplified and heard, but they also caused a humming or hissing noise to come through the amplifier, but the tone was “good enough” for musicians at the time. Gibson hired an engineer named Seth Loving to see if he could correct this anomaly. Sure enough he invented a device he called a “Humbuckler” that produced a cleaner tone that eliminated the hiss and the humming noise. Gibson got a head of the pack. And, oh yeah, around that same time, they bought Epiphone.

Legendary Marketing Guru Theodore Leavitt had a great expression: “It’s not whom we know, it’s how we are known by them.” Joe Girard exemplifies that. He is the world’s greatest salesman. He sold 13,001 cars to individual people. In one month in 1973 he sold 174 cars. That is a world record that stands to this day. How did he do it? He explained in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that, “When you bought a car from me, you just didn’t get a car. You got me. I would break my back to service a customer; I’d rather service a customer than sell another car.” Mr. Girard emphasized that he loved his customers. Unlike today where many companies view their customers as a hindrance, Mr. Girard saw the opportunity to put food on the table for his family. He was born poor and he was down on his luck when a manager at a car dealership decided to give him a shot at sales. And he never forgot it. Mr. Girard said that he sincerely appreciated every person who ever bought a car from him. He would tell customers, “I thank you, and my family thanks you. I love you.” Mr. Girard didn’t see a sale as the end result. He saw making a satisfied customer as the goal.

I’ve described Marketing strategies that work, the power of persistence, and success. I’ve talked about people and companies that are winners. I think it fitting to close with a remark by one of the greatest winners of them all. Vince Lombardi used to tell his players that “the day you can tolerate coming in second, it makes it that much easier to tolerate coming in third. And that makes it easier to accept coming in fourth and so on.” So the next time you do something, don’t ask yourself if it’s good enough, you ask yourself if it’s perfect.