Thursday, March 23, 2017

An Incomprehensible World

A bit of a rant, if I may.

I am coming to understand the mindset of one who votes for a candidate who promises to "tear it all down." My life is dominated by forces I cannot control or understand. All the big ticket necessities (phone, car, etc) require multi-year contracts that I cannot understand for service/products that I don't know how they will work until I'm locked into them, which, predictably, usually disappoint.

My car is ergonomically built for something other than a human, thus it causes back pain, and my phone service from T-mobile is awful. Apparently, I have been *leasing* my phone, which means that after paying more than the phone would have cost to buy, I must return it at the end, and rather than paying $150 for early termination, early termination would have cost over $600. All of this was described in a contract which I was not given the opportunity to read before signing.

I owed thousands of dollars in taxes last year, and, after increasing withholding for both of us, we apparently are on track to owe thousands more this year.

In trying to start a business, I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that at some point, I will make some unforeseeable error that will run afoul of some tax code or some regulation which will result in a level of fines that will bankrupt me.

Marauding gangs of thugs can be seen and fought. They can even, sometimes, be reasoned with. They can be prepared for, defended against, and, even if they destroy everything you care about, you at least know what happened and why. 

When the government determines you owe thousands of dollars in taxes or an insurance company tells you that you owe thousands to the hospital, it is a force of nature that cannot be resisted. But, what is worse, is that you feel like you should be able to do something about it. You can read the rules. You can read the contract.

But who has time for that? Who knows which rules to read? Who can afford to consult a lawyer to read it for them?

Of course, I don't support candidates like Trump, not because I like the system, but because I know that, rather than tearing it all down, he will just build it up even more and make it even worse.

And I don't support anarchists because, much as it seems appealing to be dealing with marauding gangs rather than the fear of bureaucracy, the fact remains that the constant danger of sudden death for myself and my family, really is worse than the lingering fear of the taxman or the insurance man or any other Man serving me with unpleasant papers.

In other words, my mindset is certainly growing closer and closer to that of the Trump voter. Only my understanding of the world makes me not like them. Worse, it means that I understand just enough to know that I really should be able to grasp this all but not actually enough to be able to do anything about it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Ultimate School Choice

I attended a well funded, well rated, well equipped high school. It was a "good" school. but I managed to get through four years of education achieving honors without learning most of the skills that I would actually need to succeed.

This good school failed to teach me financial literacy, how to find a job, interview skills, sales skills, marketing skills, or any other business skills. I did not learn these skills until my early thirties. This good school failed to teach me anything I needed to know. And the lack of these skills proved costly to me. Very costly indeed.

I'm not saying that every school needs to teach business skills, but parents should have the choice to send their children to a school that teaches business skills, or art, or theater, or science.

I actually don't think that most school choice proposals go far enough. I believe that the free market would be an effective solution. Complete school choice, allowing a broader standard for schools to be created, some of which are not hampered by standardized testing. Each child has a dollar figure attached to them, and parents send their child to the school of their choice, period. The good schools thrive, the poor schools close, leaving a fine building for a better school to open in.

With a diversity of schools, there will be a diversity of admission standards. Some will want test scores. Some will want entrepreneurship. Some will want artistic skills and auditions.
Imagine if a local community of 200 parents could join together to open their own school run by people they choose, teaching the curriculum they prefer. No more neglected schools run by distant boards. Every child the same value. This would be possible because the funding would exist.

Some ask about kids who need special education. Note than many learning disabilities are only disabilities when forced to learn the same way as everyone else. With a diversity of schools and styles, many who would be "behavior problems" or "learning disabled" at a normal school could thrive at a different kind of school environment.

No plan is perfect. Neither is this one. This is not a matter of Democrat or Republican. It's a matter of creating new forms of education for a new economy. Even the best public schools are failing their students, and there must be something better. This is the best I can think of.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Win and Lose By the Rules of the Game

Like him or hate him, if you're an American,
he is your President.
I see a lot of liberals claiming that Trump didn't really win the election because he lost the popular vote. You see this #notmypresident hashtag. And this really bugs me.

I'm not a Trump supporter. I didn't vote for him, and I think his administration will be a negative experience for many people, especially already disadvantaged populations. A lot of the people who are so upset about his election have good reason to be so upset.

But he did win.

Some of this may have its roots in 2000 when there really was shenanigans: votes being "misplaced", miscounted and a legitimate doubt as to who was the legitimate winner. 2016 is not that. The votes are pretty clear, and, under the rules that were in place, Trump won.

Look at it this way. The other American past time, besides half of American convincing itself that the other half will destroy us all every four year, is Baseball. In Baseball, you win by getting the most runs. But what if we have a game between the Red Sox and the Yankees and the score is:

Red Sox - 5 runs, 12 hits
Yankees - 3 runs, 18 hits

You have to touch to hard pentagon thing to score, not the
soft square one. See, I know sports.
I don't know if this scenario is mathematically reasonable, but it's an example, so roll with it. No one would say, "well, the Yankees really should be called the winner because they got the most hits. They got more men on base and maybe even advanced more bases, so they should be the winner."

Of course not. The rules say that the most runs win. If you don't like it, then maybe you should create a new game called Buntball in which the most hits win, and runs mean nothing. But even if you created Buntball, you can't say that the Yankees would have won if they were playing Buntball because you would play Buntball totally differently than you'd play Baseball. You'd be pushing for hits instead of runs, and that's a different strategy.

Same thing in electoral politics. In the Electoral College system, it's by state, so if you aren't going to win a state, you don't compete for the state. You save your resources. In a Popular Vote system, you would compete for every vote, everywhere. Clinton would have needed to campaign in the deep red country. Trump would have been out in upstate New York and Western Massachusetts (not the Pioneer Valley, the rest of it) and Eastern and Northwestern Connecticut.

Would he still have won? I cannot say. But the way the race would be run would be entirely different, so the outcome would be different.

While I hate to say "You lost. Get over it," or more accurately "We lost. Get over it," the fact is that's the case. We lost. Get over it.

That doesn't mean that liberals should just give up and go home and wait for the next election. It means the opposite. It means that we need to stop wasting energy whining about what already happened and put our energy to the changes we can make.

The midterms are 22 months away. It's not too soon to start recruiting and supporting candidates.

Many important decisions are made at the state and local levels. Do you know who your state and local representatives are? That seems like a better investment of energy than complaining about an election gone by.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Day at the Playscape

I took my daughter to the playscape at the other day. I have been a fan of Lenore Skenazy ever since she let her son (who is now in college) take a trip on the subway, and I've been thinking about how to raise a strong and independent child for many years. Of course, now the rubber hits the road. I have a child.

The playscape at the mall has a variety of brightly colored things to climb on (and fall off of). It is an interesting place because I get to watch not only my own daughter, but the other kids and their parents. The benches for parents are all around the playscape, so the parents get to sit quite close to the kids.

I am always interested to see how involved some of the parents are in their kids play. Not that they play with them, none of them do that.
I don't tell her how to play, but I do try to
guide her to hold the sword and shield correctly.
But they advise, direct, and interfere. One woman who was sitting near me repeatedly scolded her son for trying to climb up the slide instead of sliding down it. He was playing wrong, and she was telling him how to play right.

I also often see parents helping their kids. Lifting them up to here. Taking them down from there.

I do not subscribe to this behavior. The playscape is padded structures mounted on a 6" thick foam mat. Short of wearing a helmet and safety harness, there are few places that a child could explore their abilities and experiment with a lower risk of injury, and I see this as a great thing. I can let Rowan do her thing. If she tries to leave or tries to climb over the benches to the gumball machines, I'll intervene, but otherwise, she does as she likes.

It is in this way that I took her to the playscape (indicated for ages 2+) when she was 9 months to see what she could do, and I had the opportunity to see my 23" long (she wasn't walking yet) daughter climb onto a 28" tall car-like structure and figure out how to climb out of it and make her way back to the floor safely.

The other day, she was climbing on a structure shaped like a giant caterpillar climbing over a log. IT is a difficult object to climb, and her approach to climbing it did not seem to be the best one. It is was apparent to my parental eyes that she might fall off of it. The fall would be about 8" onto a padded floor, but it would be a fall nonetheless, and she could hurt herself.

Moment of choice. Do I step in and suggest that she stop climbing on the structure or perhaps try to help her to prevent her from falling, or do I let her fall and learn from it, possibly hurting herself.

Sure enough, she did fall, and Dad swooped into action. I picked up my crying daughter and snuggled her close to me while she made that sad but adorable blubbering sound that she makes when she hasn't figured out if she is hurt or just startled yet. I held her until she calmed down enough to talk. She told me that her foot hurt, so I examined it. No blood. No redness. No swelling. And it didn't appear tender.

She did it.
A few minutes of cuddling and she was ready to get back to the playscape. She returned to the same caterpillar that she had fallen off moments before. The thought to stop her did not even cross her mind. The caterpillar had won the first round, but Rowan was not done with it. She tried to climb it again. A few minutes later, I heard her proclaim loudly "I DID IT!" as she stood triumphantly atop the caterpillar segment. I cheered. I clapped. I took a picture.

She had a great afternoon. She played on many things, and conquered many challenges. She had fallen off that caterpillar once, but we did not allow the story to end there. The story continued until she could shout "I DID IT!"

Every inspirational movie has a story arc in which things look bad and the hero gets knocked down, but then the hero gets back up and triumphs. So, why is it that when our kids fall down, we whisk them away to "safety" and don't allow them to finish their story, or, worse, never give them the chance to fall at all?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Lesbian Couple Asked Me for Advice

A friend introduced me to a lesbian couple that is concerned because their elementary school aged son is going to be moving schools and they are worried that he might face teasing and bullying because of his moms’ orientation. He asked me about it because I was also the son of a lesbian couple as I went through my school years (and I remain a son of a lesbian couple today). I decided to write a post about it, figuring that there might be others who could benefit from my experience.

First, let me include one privilege checking caveat. I grew up in Massachusetts in the 90’s. This is written for people who are in socially liberal areas. If you are in the deep south or Bible Belt areas, you may find things to be more difficult. I will discuss how to deal with the teasing in the later part of this post.

This timing post has nothing to do with the current political climate and is only in response to the request for assistance I received.

Got 99 Problems But My Moms Ain’t One
When I was in middle school and elementary school, I got made fun of for a lot of things (not so much in high school). Here is a list, in order of commonality, of the things I was made fun of for:
1.       Acne
2.       Bad Hair
3.       My nervous habit of giggling when insulted
4.       Acne
5.       Fashion
6.       Acne
7.       My name (Outhouse, Greenhouse, Brownhouse, Doghouse, Blackhouse – they started running out of good ones)
8.       Acne
9.       My moms being lesbians
For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call the couple who contacted me Alice and Betty. They are concerned that their son might lose friends because they can’t deal with him having lesbian moms and that he will resent them.

Here’s the thing. If someone would make fun of me because my moms are lesbians, then that’s not someone I’d want to be friends with. I lost zero friends during my whole school career because of my lesbian moms. Not one. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

You know who I resent? The bastards who invented the phrase “oxycute ‘em!” They gave people the impression that acne was easily curable and they caused me much grief. Sometimes I worry that now that I work in New York, I might run into someone in marketing and find out that they invented that phrase. I’m not sure if I could be held accountable for my actions if I meet that person. 20 years later, still upset about that.

But my moms? They were awesome. And it was 1996! Who picks on someone for lesbians moms in 1996. It’s not 1956 people!

Nobody Can Make You Feel Inferior Without Your Consent
Homosexual parents sometimes might feel that they are somehow doing something wrong. They know that they are not, but that doesn't quiet the anxiety. But they aren't doing anything wrong. They are living life in the way that God made them, and this is what they should teach their children. If their children do not feel they are doing anything wrong, then why would they accept criticism for it? It would be like making fun of a kid for walking upright or wearing shoes. There's nothing wrong with it, so why would you mock it?

This is not to say that no one tried to make fun of me for it. This dialog happened once:

Bully: Your mom's a lesbian.
Me:  Yes.
Bully: Like, she's a dyke.
Me: That means lesbian, yes.
Bully: But, like, your mom sleeps with other women.
Me: That's what lesbian means.
Bully: But... like, your mom's a lesbian. 
The bully was thinking that my mother's orientation was something negative, but I did not accept that. This gets us into the underlying social theory of why kids make fun of each other. In any environment where a pecking order is established like school, prison, a sports team, or a post apocalyptic wasteland, people are trying to position themselves above others. They will take advantage of any lever that presents itself to do so. Is that kid different because he wears glasses and you don't wear glasses? Get people without glasses to agree that no glasses is better than glasses. Now, as a group, you are all higher up the pecking order.

Of course, this only works because everyone buys into it. If the glasses wearing kids refused to accept that their glasses made them inferior, then the lever would be invalid.

It is the same with a gay parent. Had I accepted that having a homosexual parent made me inferior, then it would have done so, but I did not accept that. Thus, it lost its sting. Moreover, I could flip the script on them. Not only would homosexual parentage not make me inferior, homophobia made them inferior.

You see, what is happening here is a form of social combat. The bully is picking this fight on this topic because he thinks he can win this engagement on this topic and come out on top. It's culturally similar to the bully who physically attacks a weaker kid. He does so to appear strong, but if the "weaker" kid can best the bully, then the bully will appear weaker and the other stronger.

What If I Don't Live In A Blue State?
So, what if the it isn't a matter of pecking order but serious bigotry? Well, this is outside my personal experience because I grew up in Massachusetts, but I shall answer anyway because I know someone is going to ask.

The answer is similar. If you are not doing anything wrong, then there is no reason to feel guilty. If your parents are gay and they feel that is morally okay and you do as well, then you should carry that confidence. Here's the thing. The Bible does not actually forbid homosexuality. It really doesn't. You can read about it here.

So, it's not immoral. It's not against the Bible. The only real reason people have a problem with it is that it's icky to them. Well, that's no reason to get down on someone for something.

So, for a child of gay parents in a socially conservative area, it will be more difficult, but I'd recommend finding friends who do not have a problem with it. Build a bulwark of allies, so that when the homophobes do come around, the allies can say "dude, that's not a thing."

Bigotry can only thrive because people accept it. If people reject it, it recedes into the shadows and eventually vanishes entirely, like a plant starved of light.

That said, perhaps this is just me speaking from my privileged position of living in a socially liberal state, and maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. This whole section is hopeful speculation.

The Take Away for Gay/Lesbian Parents (In Socially Liberal Areas)
Your lifestyle will not ruin your kid's life. It won't even make it more difficult. Sure, they might get teased for it, but they'll be teased for that instead of something else. We all get teased, and the adversities that we face as kids give us strength to fight the greater challenges in our lives.

Your kids may resent you for interfering with their relationship or for giving them a curfew or for making them do their homework, but as long as you are open, honest, and loving with them, I don't expect they will resent you for your orientation.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Monday Morning Train Ride

The view from the train window.
Every Monday morning, I get up at 4:30 AM, although I should probably get up earlier since I keep almost missing my train. I get up at 4:30 so I can catch a 5:50 train from New London to New York. This train gets me to Grand Central a little after 9 AM, then the subway gets me to my office downtown closer to 9:40. It's about 3.5 hours to get there, and depending on the connections, 3.5-4.5 hours to get back. Don't cry for me. I love every minute of it.

I take this journey to get to the offices of EZBZ, inc, the creators of, a digital concierge service that connects consumers to businesses in the most direct and intuitive manner ever devised on the Internet. My job is that of Marketing Manager. That is, to create the programs and strategies that get people to go to the site to use the service. My job is to get people to use a free service that will save them money and get organizations to join into partnerships that cost nothing but will earn them revenues. It is more difficult than it sounds.

Quote a far step from selling $30/month insurance policies at kitchen tables around Western Massachusetts. So, how did I get here?

For the previous year, I was selling printing along the shoreline of Eastern Connecticut. Unfortunately for me, as well as the company I was working for, the sales strategy I was made to use was flawed. Whether it was flawed in design or execution, I do not know because this strategy was not written down anywhere, but I can tell you it did not work. In August, I was given the option to either stick more closely to the ineffective plan or go onto straight commission and do it my way. I took the commission and the freedom.
I couldn't help but think that the leader of Earth Class Mail is
Chris Dipaola's long lost brother.

Since I would rather devise ways to make a living rather than quietly starve, I devised a number of creative strategies to sell more. My boss referred to these ideas as "crazy ideas." Eventually, my frustration grew at not being respected for my abilities and at being blamed for the failure of a clearly faulty system. I happened to find a show on Hulu called Startup Junkies, which follows the adventures of Earth Class Mail as they went through a portion of their startup process. It was all about how challenging, stressful, and grueling working for a startup is.

It looked like a lot of fun, and I wanted to get in.

I Googled "Startup Jobs" and I found a site called Angel List. The site is a tool to find jobs at startups, but they understand that not all startup jobs fit into a simple job description, so there is also an element of the site that seems inspired by a dating site. In addition to applying (which you can do by pulling your resume from LinkedIn or Facebook), you can also simply mark that you are interested in a company. If the company does likewise, you may communicate directly.

I made such a connection with Shana Schlossberg, founder and leader of EZBZ as well as Innovate Hartford, a tech incubator in downtown Hartford. We scheduled a phone call and she told me at length about EZBZ. It was amazing. I was hooked. I wanted to get in.

Then we scheduled the interview... to talk about the project manager position at a spinoff company. The spinoff was also exciting, but not as exciting as EZBZ. So, leading up the the interview, I started poking around my network to see who might be a good EZBZ partner, not because I was angling for a job, but just because networking and connecting people is what I do.

I went on that interview and we talked about the other company and the job and my salesman sense was telling me that I had not closed a deal, but I figured I'd at least make a connection. So I casually mentioned that I happened to know the person who ran the largest Steampunk event in North America who had over 100,000 followers on Facebook and perhaps he might make a good EZBZ marketplace partner if she would like me to introduce her. She said that she was interested. The interview was on a Thursday. The conference call to set it up was the following Tuesday.
Innovate Hartford

I then continued in that vein. I introduced her to a large local non-profit. I emailed a few other ideas. Finally, with one of my ideas, I included the post script that I hoped I was not overstepping my bounds by sending over all these ideas. She said that, quite to the contrary, she and Rachel, her right-hand person, were impressed and how did I feel about the title Marketing Manager.

This is the amazing thing about startups and dynamic entrepreneurs. They were not hiring for a Marketing Manager. They certainly were not looking for someone who lived in Eastern Connecticut. But they found found that I brought something to the table that would benefit the team, they figured out what title that might be, and everyone was better off.

My job is basically to continue doing what I started doing at that interview. Find great partners and come up with "crazy ideas" which might earn the company "crazy money". I was not hired because I most closely fit the box they were trying to fill. I was hired because they felt that I was a good bet to build a box for.

Perhaps you are wondering a bit about what I mean by partnership because you think that you might know of a potential partner? We find that the most effective way to get people to use the site is to partner with others who can influence them to use it. Our service is great, but that's what every service says about themselves. A great partner is anyone who can help us connect with people who need products and services: anything from contractors to professionals to entertainers. The partner could be a non-profit, an online interest group, a media outlet, a business, or even just a well connected or motivated individual. In exchange for their help in connecting us with consumers, we share the revenues from their efforts with them. There is no upfront cost for a partner. They don't give us their mailing list. We set up a marketplace with a unique link, and they promote it. It's as simple as that. For more info, email me or give me a call at 203-707-1245.

Note: I go to NYC one day a week because that's where the rest of the team is. My office is actually in the Innovate Hartford space in Hartford, and the actual location of my work is wherever the work is to be done.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Go to War with the Army You Have, not the Army You Want

As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time. - Donald Rumsfeld (Source) 
I'm not a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld, as he led us into the worst military engagement since Viet Nam, but this quote is a great quote.

It is great because it is educational in two ways. First, it teaches you to focus on the problem at hand rather than what went wrong before. Second, it teaches that now is when you are acting, not some time in the future.

The Past is the Setting
On a recent episode of Open For Business on WBLQ, I interviewed my wife Amy, and one thing that we discussed is that a key to doing business with a spouse is the ability to deal with the situation that is before us rather than cast blame or fault. There is certainly a time for analyzing what errors were made, who made them, and how to avoid them in the future.

However, in the event, while the action is happening is not that time. At a certain point, the clock is running, the ball is in play, and worrying about the past is counter productive. The only thing that can be done at that time is to deal with the situation before us. Fight the war with the army you have, not the army you might wish to have.

How many times have planning teams wasted countless hours as the clock wound down to the event worrying about who did what wrong. I know I have certainly been guilty of this in the past. Knowing who is at fault does not fix the problem nor does it get you closer to your goal. Worse, not only does the process waste time and energy, it also creates animosity. It breaks down the team dynamic making the team even less effective going forward.

Unless we are talking about a solution serious enough to warrant eliminating someone from the team or a dramatic strategic shift, the thick of the action is not the time to deal with it. Deal with it in after action analysis.

The Future is Irrelevant
For most people, their response to challenging shift in circumstances is to batten down the hatches and hunker down, waiting for it to blow over. In an economic shift, either loss of job/loss of income or sudden increase in expenses, most people become more conservative. Holding tightly to what job they have and becoming completely unwilling to take any kind of risk, even to the extent of turning down a clearly better job for fear of losing their existing job.

Think of the character in the movie clinging to the branch on the side of a cliff, to terrified to let go in order to grab onto the rescuer hanging from the helicopter.

They are waiting for some time in the future when things are better to take their shot. "We can barely pay our bills now, how could I possibly take a chance on my project?"

And certainly, one should be sure to properly analyze the downside risk before taking any chance. If you are in debt to your eyeballs, it's probably not the time to quit your job and try something completely different. But, that may be the ideal moment to take on a side project, that is a smaller risk. Yes, it may take a small investment, and it may feel like you are betting the farm to invest $200 in something, but if it is a project that you have confidence in, then there is a credible chance it will earn that $200 back and more.

When I was 18, I took a shot with Vector selling Cutco knives. I needed to invest about $200 in the sample kit. I certainly didn't make a fortune, but I earned a bit over $1000 during the summer I sold and I got invaluable experience. Remember, if you invest $200 and you make back $201, not counting the value of your time, you have come out ahead. Just because you didn't make millions doesn't mean that the project was a failure.

Stupid Yesterday, Less Stupid Today, Do It Now Anyway
When I look back on things I did in my youth and things I thought in the past, I often find myself shaking my head and wondering how I could be so stupid, so ignorant. How could I not have known that. Well, I didn't know that then because I hadn't learned it yet. The world is complicated and there's a lot to learn.

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I ever came into was about four years ago when I realized that if I was so dangerously ignorant five to ten years previous, then there must be thing today that I will look back on five years from now and be shocked by. Indeed, there are things I look back six months at and wonder at my foolishness.

Every day, ask yourself, "what am I doing and thinking today that I will look back on in the future and marvel at the idiocy of?" I guarantee you there is something. You will always make mistakes in life. Just make sure that they are different mistakes every time.

This fact can lead us to feel that we should hold off on doing something until we are more "ready." We don't know enough yet. We are not prepared yet. Guess what. You won't know enough or be prepared enough next month or next quarter or next year or next decade.

If you have specific milestones you are waiting for, that's another story. If, those milestones are actually relevant to the task.

Waiting to finish you degree to get started on your business? Do you really need you degree to start or is it just a reasonable sounding excuse for procrastination?

Waiting for your child to finish daycare so you'll have more available funds? What if new expenses appear in the future to replace day care expenses?

If the milestones you wait for are important, do you have a specific plan to achieve those milestones in a timely fashion or are you just waiting for the stars to align and the omens to be just right? Because if you don't have a specific plan to achieve the milestone that you are using as a reason to wait,then you don't have a valid reason to wait. You have an excuse to procrastinate.

The longest journey begins with a single step whether that step is an investment of resources or just selecting a reading list to educate yourself.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Are you taking steps to get there, or will your 5 year goal be the same 5 years from now as it is now?
Need help developing your goals and a road map to get there? Email me.