Rise of the Small Business

Because of complicating factors, I was in an unfamiliar part of town last week and had to find a place to take my kids for dinner. I chose a chain restaurant that looked clean and immediately regretted my choice.

It was clean and orderly but the food was terrible. The cashier upsold me on toppings to net the chain an bonus 50 cents. What does it say about a company that would choose such a small one-time profit instead of fostering long-term customer loyalty? Because that’s what that 50 cents netted them.

Also, the TV was tuned in to ESPN and it destroyed the possibility of any kind of conversation. Everyone who worked there looked bored and counting the minutes until their shift was over. Not a single person there was motivated by management to do anything outside of the bare minimum required. That’s what you get when you manage by the stick and not by using carrots.

It was near a high traffic mall and we were surrounded by other chain stores. I had the overwhelming feeling of being processed – lumped into a giant pack to be fed, clothed, and entertained in bulk. I didn’t fully grasp the scale and reach of these herd-processing corporations until I read that if McDonalds wanted to create a menu item featuring shrimp, they would deplete the world’s shrimp supply in 2-3 months.

Don’t get me wrong, this kind of processing is entirely preferable to the alternative. Given the choice of Big Mac or starvation, I’ll pick the Big Mac seven days a week. But it did give me insight into why small businesses, like mine, flourish in the face of enormous competition.

Small businesses can’t compete with the big chains when it comes to efficiency and a low, low price. But we can when it comes to not treating people like herd animals, or not using deceptive practices to net an additional 50 cents on a transaction. When running a small business, doing good work leads to more work. The best advertising route available to you is your good name.

Small businesses have to provide a good product that we are proud to serve and motivated to serve with a smile because we know our livelihoods depend on it. I’m all too aware of the competition out there and focus on delivering products to my clients with speed, quality, and a smile.

It’s David vs. Goliath all over again – you have to be fast, smart, and use technology to your advantage to succeed in this line of work. It’s a welcome change and I love it.

Crime and Punishment

The best part of Dostoevsky’s epic novel “Crime and Punishment” comes at the end. And it’s not just the overwhelming sense of relief of nearing completion of a 600 page dark, oppressive novel.

In the story, the main character Raskolnikov brutally murders a woman living in his apartment. Dostoevsky is sometimes said to be a master of human psychology, pre-dating Freud, and this novel is his masterwork. The novel dives deep into a criminal’s mind.

Before and after committing the deed, Raskolnikov rationalizes his actions. The woman is an unscrupulous pawnbroker and needs to be exterminated, he thinks. He believes murder is permissable for enlightened people like him in pursuit of a higher purpose.

One is reminded of Nietzchke’s writing about the ubermensch, the higher beings among us who should be allowed to break the rules as they see fit. Raskolnikov, like all murderers and criminals, believes himself to be one of these higher beings.

It’s a sick and twisted view of the world. Raskolnikov goes deeper and deeper into psychological hell as his actions, lies, and deception isolate him from everyone else. When he’s eventually caught, the relief for everyone – including the reader – is palpable.

But then comes the epilogue, where it gets important. Raskolnikov is sentenced to an eight year sentence in Siberia. It’s here – doing his time and paying his price to society, that he finds true redemption. Unlike his previous suffering, this one is with a cause, he’s making amends to society and in the end he achieves atonement.

I thought about this story when I heard about the Tsarnaev apology yesterday. After going on a murderous spree that terrorized an entire city, ruined a historic and fun sporting event, and destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, Tsarnaev finally opened up and said, “Sorry about all that.”

Yeah.

Here’s the rub – there is a price to be paid when you commit a crime. Apologies are self-serving if the perpetrator is unwilling to do anything outside of mouth a few meaningless words. For punishment to be redemptive, there has to be a cost to the perpetrator.

Like Raskolnikov, Tsarnaev thought he was committing murder for a higher purpose – fulfilling the aims of some God that only he can see. Unlike Raskolnikov, he was not racked with guilt. Rather it all seemed like a fun game for Dzohar – picking up milk on his way home from blowing people up, participating in movie-like shootouts with police. Having his face splashed across the cover of Rolling Stone like a young Bob Dylan was fun, being executed – not so much. So now he’s sorry.

The city of Boston gave the Tsarnaevs safe harbor from a war torn region. Dzohar enjoyed free public education and was given a world of opportunity. And he repaid this hospitality and kindness by killing innocent children, women, and men and marred the lives of thousands.

That’s what grates on me, the ingratitude. If that was my son, there would be no need to execute me – I’d die from shame. For every action, there is a price to be paid and no, mouthing a few words handed to you by your lawyer is not penance. It’s weaseling out of what you did. The bill has come due for you Dzohar, time to pay up.

Telling Stories

Back when I was an English major in college, I looked around at all the other fields of study and became jealous. Upon graduation, engineers and business majors were going to make bank and I was going to starve.

I used to joke, “I can’t fix your sink but I can write you a lovely sonnet about it.” Writing seemed like such a worthless skill to my college self. While engineers were busy solving hard problems, we English majors loafed around telling each other stories.

It took me many years to recognize the value of my degree. Want to capture someone’s attention? Tell them a story. At your next presentation, instead of showing a endless series of slides on growth rates – tell a story.

When I worked at Viaweb, our story was we were scrappy upstarts with a Harvard pedigree. That was a story people remembered and it opened a lot of doors. Faced with competition from Intel, SAP, and potentially Microsoft if they ever got wind of this whole internet thing, our entire business model was loosely based on the story of David and Goliath. Like David, we were small, fast, and used technology to overcome larger foes. Just as in the Bible, it worked out well for the underdog.

That story also served to rally us, it gave us an identity and a cause. The story motivated and inspired us much more than a chart. The Viaweb story template was later used to launch the enormously successful Y Combinator – creators of Reddit, Dropbox, and Airbnb.

If you need numbers, go to an engineer. If you want those numbers woven into a story that makes sense and moves people, talk to a liberal arts major.

Special thanks to Fred Wilson whose blog post inspired this one. Also the book Made to Stick, which originally pointed this out to me.

Vietnam Video

There was one video store in the small town where I went to college. Back then entertainment options were a lot more limited but fortunately it had a good selection. The owner had excellent taste in movies and loved talking about them.

He was also slightly unhinged and regularly wore black t-shirts with ‘Vietnam Veteran’ blazed across the front. The war obviously had a big effect on him. Kids on campus referred to his store as “Vietnam Video.”

I learned a lot about movies from that little store. One of the movies Vietnam Video introduced me to was the Charles Bukowski biopic Barfly. In the words of the owner, “You’re gonna fucking love this one, man. It’s great, Mickey Rourke is drunk through the whole thing.” He told me this while sprawled out on a beanbag while his Asian wife dutifully rang it up.

Vietnam Video was correct, Barfly was a great movie. Ever hear a song where your first reaction is “What is this song???” That was my reaction when I heard “Hip Hug Her” in the opening scene. I spent years tracking it down afterward and didn’t find until the internet arrived.

From that opening scene, the movie plunges into chronicling the lives of the lowest on L.A. skid row. Somehow it made it all tragic and comic at the same time, it even made it vaguely romantic or glamorous to my college self. Here was a man, an alcoholic misunderstood writer, bravely living life on his terms, I thought.

He’s also, viewed from afar, a fucking jerk. I have a conflicted relationship with this movie now. Part of me hates it – the boredom and waste of crushing poverty, the frustration of dealing with people who can’t help themselves. And another part of me sees the beauty in it – the beauty of the struggle itself, the nobility of getting by despite adversity, of getting happiness from whatever limited means you have.

I haven’t watched this movie in years and I don’t think I can. But it’s fun to revisit the art that once moved you so many years ago to realize how your viewpoint has changed.

Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds

Last week was a real bummer – I battled a nagging cold the whole time and felt unproductive, useless and miserable. I also fell into an epic losing streak at online chess.

Every chess player has a rating so you can play similarly skilled players. Over the course of a few days, my rating decreased by 20% as I lost game after game. Towards the end of the week I felt physically better but still couldn’t win. I kept missing easy things like blocking a potential checkmate or taking an enemy’s piece. Afterwards I would curse myself for being so stupid.

Being in a slump is a special kind of pain that can’t be fathomed until you’ve experienced it. You lose all confidence, question yourself, and start to doubt everything. Then the haters come out to pile on. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s life’s losers love to kick someone when they are down. It makes them feel better about themselves.

That all changed on Saturday when I went ballistic at the gym. Immediately afterward, I sat down to play and won 10 games in a row. All of the sudden I’m playing better than before.

I used to think there was a mind-body dichotomy where one could only gain at the other’s expense. In this view, the jocks were dumb and the nerds were scrawny. But actually the two work together, healthy bodies make for healthy minds. If you are beating your brain against some difficult problem, the best thing you can do to solve it is go for a run.