Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 In Review

A ConCardia Tournament at ChessieCon this fall.
This has been quite an eventful year for me. I took a shot at turning ConCardia into a real business and missed the mark. I got back into the car business. I took over a bookshop. And, of course, I crossed that great threshold of moving from not being a parent to being a parent.

During 2013, ConCardia was growing and I felt that if only I was freed from the constraints of a car salesman's schedule, I could really make something happen with it. When I left Volkswagen last December, I decided to take advantage of Unemployment to give ConCardia the old college try. As it turns out, the market for it is very different from my initial concept. Unemployment ran out, and it became time to find regular work again. I am glad that I gave it a shot. I am back at a car dealership, and I am working as many hours as ever, but now I know that I gave ConCardia its shot. It's a fun project to run, and people enjoy it, but it will likely never provide my living.

My daughter gets an early start with networking, smoozing the
President of the Young Professionals of Eastern Connecticut
at a recent event.
This process also brought me to land at a great dealership with wonderful people. I enjoy my time here. I can really see being here for a very long time, at least as long as it is led by the same great people and has the same pleasant environment for staff as well as customers.

When 2014 began, I had the sensation of going down a waterslide. I had faith that things would end up in a good place, but I knew that I had precious little influence in the events to unfold. The best I could do would be to approach it with faith and love and hope for the best.

Inspiring baby is inspiring!
As I look at 2015, I expect a more settled year. Of course, with my daughter, there will be huge changes: first steps, maybe first words, and who knows what else. But coming into this year I was unsettled and seeking. I was unsatisfied with where I lived, the lack of people I knew, and my career trajectory. Now, I am living in a better place. I have people I work with whom I believe will become friends. I know some wonderful people through networking, especially the Chamber of Commerce and Young Professionals of Eastern CT. I have a job which I enjoy and which will provide for my needs and enable me to put money aside.

Most importantly, I have a focus which can set all the varied threads of my life in focus: my daughter. I need a good job and good income potential so I can give her what she needs. I work to build ConCardia so we will have the means to involve her in the convention community as she grows. I seek friends and associates to be a resource for her as she grows up. This sense of focus, combined with having the resources to serve her, give me a sense of satisfaction and direction that I lacked 12 months ago.

So, here's to a happy and stable new year!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Kia?

The best selling of the Kia line is the Soul. So, you could say
that in my new job, I buy and sell Souls.
Bad jokes are my forte.
After a brief stint at Valenti VW in Mystic, I have now settled in at Michael Kia in Groton, Connecticut. This is a bit of a shift for me because the value proposition for a Kia is very different from that of a Volkswagen. Kia is a more affordable vehicle, offering more technology and warranty for less money. However, that is not what brought me here.

In college, I once got the advice that if you find a good professor, you should take any class with them that you can, no matter the subject. The experience of learning from a good teacher is more valuable than any particular field of study. I feel that the same thing applies for managers. I got to know my current manager after meeting him at a Chamber of Commerce event. We had been talking for a couple months about my trying to get some kind of training position in the dealer group. When that fell through, he offered me a sales job here. I liked his attitude and approach, so I gave it a shot, and I'm glad I did.

Actually, this is our Forte. No, I never do get tired of puns,
why do you ask?
This showroom has the most upbeat and positive team I have ever worked with. The management and sales staff work together as a team. Proper process exists to make sure that vehicles are ready and paperwork is quick and efficient. The benefits me because it means I can focus on the sales process, and it benefits the customer because they find a calmer, more friendly environment and a more efficient buying process.

All in all, I am very pleased with my new selling home, and I look forward to having a lot of fun and helping a lot of people to solve their car needs.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Did you say 'Ello'?

There's this new social media side called Ello out there. Well, there is the steel frame on which they will build Ello soon. Setting up a profile feels a little like moving into an apartment with plywood floors and no glass in the windows because it hasn't been installed yet.

But, their heart is in the right place, and sometimes that's all it takes. The Ello team decided they were tired of being a product to be packaged and sold to advertisers by Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the rest. So they set about making a social networking site that was built all around the social networking, not the monetization of personal data.

This leads many to say "That can't work. How can they make any money without advertising or selling data?"

Ah, yes. A social network could not possibly survive without advertising and selling personal data. That's why Live Journal went bust. No, wait. Live Journal didn't go bust. It did quite well for a number of years until the creator was offered a bunch of money to sell out, and he did, then the site drifted into obscurity.

When you create a corporate monstrosity, people will be very hesitant to share their money with it. Live Journal, while it was still being run by its creator, did not have a giant corporate feel. Because of that, people were more than happy to purchase paid accounts. This produced more than enough revenue. It was only when the new owners got greedy and started putting in ads that the site started to look tacky.

The money is out there, and for a social networking site that provides them what they want, people will pay $20 a year for premium features. And by people, I mean 1% of the people, which is probably about all they need to make it a profitable business model. At least it will work this way for as long as the idealistic creators run it, until some big investor offers them 9 figures to sell it, and they do then we are all looking for the next Live Journal. Fortunately, if history is a guide, we have 4-7 years to enjoy this new site before that happens.

Moral of the story: join Ello, post some stuff. I have invites.

P.S. Some people have expressed concerns about the security of the site. Let me try to put this in simple terms:

Posting on the Internet is public! 
Don't post secrets on the Internet!
People will read them!

I don't post things online because I want them not to be seen. If I want something not to be seen, I'll keep it somewhere secret, not on a social media site.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dashcon: A Convention Disaster or a PR Disaster?

The more I look into this Dashcon thing, the more it seems to be a simple matter of inexperienced conrunners making a cascading series of errors. I watched the video of their ballroom fundraiser. First, let me say, that I would gladly have paid $50 to be in that audience. The energy and enthusiasm of that audience is palpable and contagious through the video. Second, lets look at what happened. All of my discussion below is based on what I have been able to piece together from what is online, since Dashcon leadership has not gotten a formal response out (a massive failure I will discuss below).

Mistake #1: Overestimated Attendance

The inexperienced organizers expected 7 times as many people as they got. This means a few things:
-They did not have the pre-reg money that they expected
-They did not have the roomnights in the hotel that they expected

When you book a hotel for a con, they expect a small token deposit upfront and the rest of the bill at the start of the con. However, often, the organizers can negotiate with the hotel to pay part of the bill upfront and part after the con. This is quite common. Unfortunately, also quite common is that a lower level person at the hotel will agree to the bill being paid later only for the higher up to overrule them at the last second and demand all the money upfront. This happened to me when I ran the first Pi-Con. Fortunately, that amount was $3000, so I put it on my credit card.

So, at this point, they had two choices, close the con or start a fundraiser. They did the later, and I applaud them for it. I watched the video of the fundraising process, and I imagine that it was a very enjoyable experience for the people in the audience. Watch the videos: they are singing, cheering, hugging. The people there had the powerful emotional experience of people supporting a winning political candidate, all condensed down into an evening. However, while they were focused on being in that room, they forgot they were running a Tumblr con, meaning that in realtime, what was happening was going to be attacked by the snarkiest, nastiest group of people ever to put words to paper screen.

Mistake #2: Not Controlling Their Online Spin

But that's not the only thing that they neglected. While they were hyperfocused on the fundraiser, they forgot that they had a con to run. This is a mistake of inexperience. The most imminent disaster will take up your attention, but the experienced con-runner remembers that while some are needed in the fundraiser room to raise the funds, other are needed elsewhere in the con to reassure the guests, panelists, and other attendees that the show will go on and they won't be screwed.

Mistake #3: Neglecting the Guests

Since most or all of the Paypal donations were refunded, it appears clear that the revenues did come over the next two days and the con would have been able to pay their paid guests and cover their rooms. However, their big guests were probably left alone and in the dark, wondering what would happen. While the big rally was going on over there, these guests were watching social media blow up with the disaster they were at. Of course, it was not, in any real sense a disaster yet, but the blogosphere loves to make a disaster and point fingers at the failures of others to make themselves feel better. So, if you are a guest reading that crap, and every person from the con who could refute it is on stage raising money or in meetings with the hotel, you get more and more nervous until you decide its time to pack up and go.

So, now one crisis, which is successfully dealt with, cascades into a second crisis of losing the key guests.

I should point out that faced with the same situation, most of the conventions I work with might have made the same mistake. Unless a con has a dedicated person whose job is to work directly with those guests, it would be very easy to neglect to keep them informed until the first crisis was dealt with. The guests are out of sight and out of mind. They are off in their hotel room preparing for the weekend. They can only contact junior staff who has probably been told not to bother senior staff until the money is raised.

Once the key guests had departed, there was the final and most damaging crisis...

Mistake #4: Neglecting Social Media

If you run a stamp collectors convention and your screw up, some people might post on their personal Facebook pages and there might be some rumble. If you run a Tumblr convention, you should expect that everything you do, good or bad, is about to be under the microscope for all to see. Rather, kaleidoscope might be more appropriate. The Internet twists everything to make it "funny". Even things that are good get turned into insulting memes. When they were forced to go begging for the $17,000 they were probably blinded by the wave of support they got, to forget that there are trolls lurking in basements across America who have never contributed anything to the world who are ready to insult and malign anything they can.

The trolls made memes of certain facts of the event, and then people who are more receptive to negative news that positive, perpetuated those memes and ideas. Of course, since most people have never run a con, they listen to the trolls who say that the surprise bill is not plausible, and the word "scam" starts floating around

The plain and simple fact is that the people who run Dashcon are young and inexperienced. They made common mistakes and mistakes that much larger and stronger cons might face. In fact, I worked with a fantastic convention this weekend that had to be saved by crowd funding in their early years due to a surprise from their venue regarding the bill. Anyone remember saveconnecticon.com? Yes, it happened after the con, not during, but the concept is the same. Dashcon just made their mistakes in front of the great lens of Tumblr.

Don't be so quick to judge unless you've started a con yourself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

If They're Bored, Then You're Boring

June 3rd, 17 days before graduation, beautiful sunny day, an hour before the end of the school day.

Standing before a group of about 20 high school kids I have never met before.

Teaching them about sales technique and tactics.

From what I hear, many would think of that as a very difficult situation, but I held their attention without disruption for 40 minutes.

I am not a professional teacher of teenagers my any stretch of the imagination, but this was where I was this afternoon. I was in front of Ledyard High School's journalism class, which is the group that puts out their news magazine The Colonel. I will admit that this is an elective class I was in front of, making my job easier, but I found them to be completely respectful and quite interested.

Did I mention that my topic was sales? Would you sit attentively through a 40 minute talk on sales? I know I would, but apparently I'm abnormal.

The reason I was there was that I had read a few weeks ago in The Day that the powers that be in the town of Ledyard were cutting the entire school paper's budget as part of a sweeping half million dollar budget cut. The article suggested that without the funding, the paper could no longer be printed.

So, emailed the address I found for The Colonel and arranged a meeting. I met with the student editors as well as the faculty adviser, Mr. Bill Frisky. We discussed the possibility of using ad sales to replace the budget, and a plan came together.

About 20 students comprise the class that runs the publication, and a year round ad in all 8 of the issues is $300. If each of the 20 students sold one year-long slot, it would replace much of the lost funding. The only problem was that the students who had tried to sell ads met with great frustration, as any novice, untrained salesperson might. So, I agreed to come into the class and give a tutorial on the selling of ads.

Today was that day. I discussed the 7 steps of the sale, prospecting techniques, appointment setting, needs analysis and more. I also answered many questions. At the beginning of the class, many students cringed at the idea of trying to sell ads, and looked at me skeptically as most audiences, especially young ones, do with an unfamiliar speaker. At the end, I asked for a show of hands as to how many felt comfortable trying to sell ads now, and most of the hands went up.

I'm not going to suggest that I had their attention because I am such an engaging speaker or I know some secret of working with teens. The fact is that what I was teaching was relevant. I was able to show them how it applied directly to a problem they face now, how it would be valuable to them in the future, and how it could even be the basis of a backup career in the future.

Obviously, it was relatively easy for me to hold their attention because I was giving them the roadmap to save their paper. The relevance was obvious.

What about other subjects? Every subject that is taught in schools is there for a reason. It's not like there is some History Lobby that pushes for history to be taught for their own benefit. Every subject has value to the students, and if that value can be portrayed then their attention can be easily held.

English? Literature provides a window to gain understanding of how people operate, granting insight as to how to work with people to achieve one's goals. Writing is a vital skill in any field of endeavor.

History? It provides valuable insight and perspective on how people, societies and nations operate. It is amazing to read about Roman politicians, FDR's government, and the conduct of the local town government and realize that all three of them interact more or less similarly to the Come Again Player's leadership, ConnectiCon's leadership, and Pi-Con's leadership. People are people, and the lessons learned here are valuable there.

Math? I use math up through Algebra on a regular basis. Determining how to allocate ConCardia cards to print sheets uses it. I also use mathematical techniques when I program the simple applications I use in by business. Arithmetic is useful on a daily basis.

Science? Society is making decisions today regarding science that will have profound implications for generations to come. Without an understanding of these decisions, we are at the mercy of others. Furthermore, an understanding of basic scientific method will provide a basis for rational thought throughout a person's life.

Teachers spend a lot of energy thinking about classroom management, but very little time thinking about how they can sell what they are teaching to their students. It is assumed that teachers will push knowledge and students will resist. But what if teachers sell students on the value of what they teach? Students will clamor for the knowledge they offer.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Good Sex Appeal, Bad Sex Appeal

This blog tends to focus on matters of sales and marketing, so I thought I'd take a moment to discuss the Comic Con image I addressed in my last post from a marketing standpoint.

Not just smart. She's beautiful too!
After reading my open letter, my wife asked me, "If Comic Con's core market tends to be men, why would the want to market to men? Wouldn't they want to market to get more women?"

Excellent question. That's why I married such a smart woman.

There is a phenomenon is marketing, especially for events which I refer to as the Ladies' Night Effect. Women in general do not want to go to an event where there will be very few other women. They tend to feel uncomfortable and even unsafe. Men, also, all things being equal, prefer to be places where there are women. Thus, bars and nightclubs across the country advertise Ladies' Nights. Free drinks, reduced entry price, and other enticements to women encourage women to attend. More importantly, it signals to women that other women will be there. Likewise, it signals to men that many women will be there. It is effective marketing to both genders although it only targets one.

In a recent article on Medium.com entitled A Gentleman's Guide to Rape Culture, Zaron Burnett discusses the fact that most women in America are frequently concerned about their safety. Whatever your opinion on the actual statistics and prevalence of attacks is, the fact is that most women take safety into account when making plans. If you are an event planner, this means that a large portion of your audience is considering how safe they will be at your event when deciding if they want to attend or not.

I'm going to repeat that for anyone who plans and promotes events, especially men who do so: A large portion of your audience is considering how safe they will be at your event when deciding if they want to attend or not. So, looking at your marketing, does it lead them to feel more safe or less safe? And, if the latter, how much money are you losing because women are staying home because they perceive your event as unsafe?

This is not about feminism, morality, or equal rights (important as those issues are). This is about the fact that these factors have concrete, real world impacts on an event's bottom line.
This image was used on the WCCC 106.9
Facebook Page to promote Comic Con

There is a way to use images of women to attract other women to an event and a way to use similar images to repel them. Consider the image that I discussed in my last post. The women do not look like regular women, and the caption implies that their breasts are the only interesting traits they have (Twelve reasons, six women, in case you didn't get the inference). This marketing could be effective to bring some men to the event, but the men it would bring would be men who are inclined to be receptive to this advertising, a population with a higher than average tendency to objectify women.

To a woman, especially a woman who likes to cosplay at conventions, this signals that this is an event where they might be more likely to find themselves objectified and even possibly harassed. Whether it is true or not, the perception is there. This kind of promotion will attract, more or less, zero women, but consider how the women that Mr. Burnett refers to in his article would see this piece.

You might object that no one is going to look at a single advertising piece and say, "that image tells me that this event is disrespectful to women so I will not attend." You may be correct. However, businesses, especially events, live and die on the margin. A massive portion of potential attendees to an event decide in the last few days or even hours leading up to an event if they will attend. They are on the fence up to the last minute. A rain storm, light cold, or interesting show on TV could dissuade them. With those people, it takes very little to move them from the "maybe yes" side to the "maybe no" side.

Image for Jeff Mach Event's
Build a Better Ball Pit GoFundMe
Conversely, consider the promotion Jeff Mach Event's GoFundMe to build a bigger ballpit, and tangentially to promote their events. The image also uses an attractive woman, but does not objectify. If a man sees this image go by on their Facebook feed, they are more likely to click on it than if, say, it was me in the ball pit, attractive as I am. However the use of the image is not demeaning to the subject. Unlike the image above, she is portrayed as a person who happens to be female as opposed to a set of breasts that happen to be attached to a person.

Over 50% of the population of America are women, and they control a disproportionate amount of the public's spending power. To insult them, demean them, and objectify them for marketing purposes is not merely morally wrong, it is strategically wrong.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Open Letter to Hartford Comic Con and 106.9

From the 106.9 Facebook page, posted May 31st, 2014
Do you think female cosplayers are nothing more than
breasts for men's amusement?
An open letter to 106.9 and Hartford Comic Con regarding a recent offensive promtion they posted to Facebook.

To Whom It May Concern,

Recently, on the WCCC 106.9 - Hartford’s Classic Rock Facebook page, an image was posted to promote Hartford Comic Con. The image was of 6 well endowed female cosplayers with the caption of "12 Reasons to Go to Comic Con".

Haha. Funny. No wait, not funny. I'm the last guy to object to using sex to sell. If the caption said "6 Reasons" then it would have been saying that seeing attractive women in costume was a good reason to attend. That's fair. Crass and low, but perhaps effective. But by saying "12" you are suggesting that their breasts are the only draw.

I have been attending fan run conventions since 1988. Fandom is about a place for people to be with others who share their interests. It is a place to feel safe and comfortable. It is a place where geeks get to be the cool kids.

It is also a place where the creative and talented can show off their costuming skills. Many cosplayers spend months designing and creating their costumes. They do so for attention and appreciation, most certainly, but appreciation of their skill and hard work, not appreciation of their boobs.

Let's consider what this light humor implies.

It implies that the craftsmanship that all cosplayers put into their costumes is meaningless next to the sexiness the cosplayer presents.

It implies that female cosplayers especially are nothing more than objects for male attendees to look at.

It implies that women in costume (or in street clothes) are nothing more than breasts with legs.

It perpetuates an entitlement culture which has been much discussed of late in light of the California shootings.

Most of all, it tells me that the publicity team for, and possibly, the management of Hartford Comic Con does not understand what it means to create a safe and comfortable place where people can be themselves. When you have to use crass sexuality to sell an event it can be a sign the event lacks depth and quality.

As an event planner myself, I respect anyone who takes the initiative to start and run a convention, but it might be wise to consider the message that certain forms of advertising send before unleashing them on the public.

Michael Whitehouse 

Elder SMOF

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What is Common Here May Be Innovative There

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun. Every storyline has been written. Every idea has been developed. All that remains in rearranging old ideas into new.

Well that's depressing.

Or is it? What if that means that to be creative you don't have to do something entirely new that has never been done before. It just means that you have to introduce something old to something new.

When I ran Phoenix Games, we did a series of movie showings. We would buy out the entire theater of 286 seats on opening night then resell those tickets to creative a private showing of movies like X-Men 2, Matrix Reloaded, and Return of the King. It was an awesome time, and a very unique experience for everyone involved.

It was also not my idea. A DJ named Todd Mayhew did it first, and I took over the idea from him when I started running my store. Flash forward to the present. I am working with a local cinema to get some excitement going for their establishment. I bring back the idea of special movie showings for opening nights of some geekier movies, working with local businesses to promote the special showings and adding to the geek cachet.

As I approached the local businesses, they were generally positive about the project, but found the idea entirely unfamiliar and new. Some of these people had been involved in the geek community for decades, yet had never done anything like this.

Sometimes, being an innovating genius is nothing more than taking a commonly known idea from one place to a new place.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Making the Most of Business After Hours Networking

They say that in business, it's not what you know, it's who you know. Some people use that axiom as an excuse for failure, but I simply see it as a fact of business. If who you know is very important, and you don't know the right people, what do you do about it? Meet the right people!

One of the best ways to start making connections is an open networking event. Most chambers of commerce run something similar. Some call it "Business After Hours" others call it "After 5". Whatever it is called, the structure is the same. A member organization looking to show off what they do hosts the event, which runs every month or so at different venues. There is generally food and drink provided, and a whole bunch of people show up and put on name tags.

The after hours networking event.
Valuable opportunity or terrifying
chore, depending on your
This can be one of the most valuable and rewarding or terrifying and stultifying events you will encounter depending on how you approach it.

The first thing to do before you even show up is to prepare. Be sure that your look is the look that you want the business community to know you by. If you are a creative type who always wears jeans and a polo, and that's how you want people to know you, you can wear that. If you want to appeal to the professionals and bankers and lawyers, you'll want a suit, or at least a nice button down shirt. Whatever look you are going for, make sure it is neat. Tousled hair, 3 days beard growth, and ratty sneakers will not give anyone confidence in your business.

If you have business cards, make sure to bring them. If you don't, get them printed. They're cheap, and they are a very good way to start the conversation.

Finally, figure out what your goal is in attending the function. Are you looking for clients? Are you looking for networking partners who can help introduce you to clients? Are you looking for other people in your industry with whom you can share ideas? Are you looking to enjoy the company of other business people because it's a nice change from the office? Depending on what your goal is, you will want to adopt a different approach to the event.

If you are lucky, you have a friend to introduce you around. Most chambers have "ambassadors" who introduce new people around. If you have someone like that to guide you, then you are in good shape, assuming that your guide can introduce you to the people you are looking to meet.

If there is a specific individual you are looking to meet or someone from a specific company, ask a member of the host chamber if they could introduce you. It is much easier to get an introduction to a specific person than an introduction to some people.

The experience of a new person without a guide is often the same: you walk in, possibly knowing one or two people. Maybe knowing no one at all. Everyone seems to know each other. They are all standing in little knots of twos and threes and none of them seem particularly interested in talking to you. Some people, at this point, will start to think of the group as cliquish, and write it off as just a bunch of old buddies getting together, making it hard to meet anyone. Resist that temptation.

Of course, they are not particularly interested in talking to you. They don't know who you are, what you do, or what you have to offer. It's your job to create interest. (You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?) If you have someone to introduce you, the introduction can create the interest. If you are on your own, however, it's up to you. So, how do you meet people at an event where everyone seems to be engaged in conversation?

While the food is often phenomenal,
you came here to build your business,
not feed your face.
Everyone at a networking event is wearing a nametag, and most of them are there to network and meet new people. Most of them are also just as shy about walking up to new people as you are. The difference is that they know people there, so, where your alternative to meeting new people is holding up a wall, their alternative to meeting new people is talking to the ones they already know.

Now, that you understand that most of the people there actually are open to meeting you, let's meet some people. Find a clot of people who are of interest to you. Perhaps the business indicated on their nametag tells you that they would be someone good to meet. Perhaps they are the group standing closest to you. It doesn't matter, you will meet lots of people in the next two hours.

Approach the group, and observe their body language. Most people at these events are engaged in casual conversation, but some might be trying to conduct some sort of business or at least formally introduce themselves in preparing for future business relations. If that seems to be what is going on, then you might want to move on to the next group. You are less likely to make a good impression if you interrupt what was developing into a valuable opportunity for those you are interrupting.

A glass of wine might help you relax
and be more open to approaching
people, but remember you are here
for business. Stay sharp, not
I discussed cliquishness earlier. That happens between people who have known each other a long time. If people know each other, they won't be talking serious business at their after hours event. They'll be chatting about golf and that thing that happened last year and kids and wives and cars. In other words, the clique standing around talking might be more open to being interrupted because they are more likely to be shooting the breeze, while the newer members, just meeting people and feeling out opportunities, may be harder to break into a conversation with.

So, let's say that you are approaching a group, and you find a break in the conversation. Often, a member of the group will notice you standing there, and draw you into the conversation. Since the only thing they really know about you is what's on your name tag, they will often start there. "So, Michael, what's Concardia?" I am often asked by way of introduction. Have your business card ready to hand to them as you explain what you do.

This is what the "elevator speech" is for. Be prepared to explain your business in 30 seconds or less. One or two sentences is better if you can do it, especially if they are crafted to elicit the response of "oh, really, that's interesting. Tell me more." You'll know you are doing it well if your business becomes the seed of the next conversation more often than not. After a polite amount of discussion of what you do and what you are looking for, turn it around and ask them what they do.

If no one starts the conversation, and if no obvious segue comes up to enter the conversation, wait for a lull in their talk and use the networking pick up line I described above. "So, Susan, what is Phillipson Associates?"  or "So, Robert, what do you do with Liberty Mutual?" There are few things wrapped up in this introduction. You are saying:

  • "I am interested in you and what you do."
  • "I am giving you the floor of this conversation for a moment to talk about yourself."
  • "Please tell me what you are looking for so I can see if I can help you with it."
  • "When you are done talking about you, I hope you will reciprocate with the opportunity to talk about me"
Your mission at these events is not to make sales. It is not even necessarily to make appointments to meet later. You have a very short 90-120 minutes to meet as many people as you can. During your time with each person you meet, your job is to arouse interest and get their card so that you can follow up and arrange an appointment to meet later. We'll talk about networking appointments in a future article.

If you approach an open networking event well prepared and equipped with a goal, you will come into a room seeing dozens of potential business contacts with whom you will have valuable, long lasting relationships. If you come in ill-prepared and unplanned, you will see a noisy, crowded room full of unfriendly strangers.

I attend the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours events regularly. If you are in Eastern Connecticut and would like some introductions, drop me a line. I'll be happy to help!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Lesson I Learned from Fum and Gebra

The Internet is full of funny cat videos, but this particular montage of Fum (a cat) and Gebra (a barn owl) being friends well exemplifies a very interesting lesson.

As you may be aware, cats eat birds and anything else small enough for them to eat without having to worry about being eaten. Cats are also somewhat social, so once they learn that another animal is neither food nor foe, they can be friends. (In fact, I am writing this with a very friendly cat in my lap.)

For more Fum & Gebra,
you can visit them on
While I was watching this video, I began to wonder why Fum did not try to eat Gebra in the first place. I realized that it was a matter of confidence. Gebra knew that he was not cat food, so he acted accordingly. Fum, seeing that Gebra did not act like food, began to treat him as an equal and eventually they became adorable friends.

I suspect that very few of my readers are owls looking to learn how to befriend a cat. However, I expect that many of my readers have situations in which they need to introduce themselves and establish relationships, possibly above their station.

Station? There's no "station" in America. We live in an egalitarian culture! No nobility! No aristocracy! No titles! And if you believe that, try to meet Warren Buffet.

But wait a minute. What if you wanted to meet Warren Buffet? Why couldn't you? In my life, I have met many impressive people. Writers, actors, politicians. When I went to UMass, I had a half hour sit down with the Chancellor of the 40,000 student institution.

If you tried to go meet Warren Buffet, you might find difficulty because you are not a sufficiently august personage to meet someone like that, but how does he know how august you are? This is America. It's not about your pedigree. It's not about who your family is or where you come from. So, how can someone know what your social position is? Easy, you tell them.

Maybe this is a nice guy who cares
about his customers, but you won't
stick around long enough to find out.
You tell people your social position every day, all the time. You tell them by how you dress, how you speak, how you act, how you carry yourself. Sales became a much easier challenge for me when I learned this. It can be difficult to get to a decision maker at a business if you act like and present yourself as a sales person. Who wants to talk time from their busy schedule to talk to a salesman selling something?

The best place to see this phenomenon is in the dating scene. People will often look at someone that they are interested in and figure that person is "out of their league." The secret is that no one knows what their own league is. They only know that they are out of your league because of the way you present yourself to them. If you can think of yourself as attractive and desirable and project that image (without being a cocky jerk, of course) then the game changes.

Think about this. The only objective way to know your own attractiveness (by which I mean a combination of physical and other traits) is by the quality of suitors who approach you. However, since most people underestimate their own attractiveness, they tend not to approach people they consider out of their league. If most people think that way, then the most attractive people would actually get less attention, except from people with an over inflated sense of themselves.

Knowing this, in any encounter where you are meeting someone for the first time, for business or personal reasons, why would you present yourself as anything less that highly desirable.

This does not mean that you should be cocky or arrogant. Those are not confidence. Those are warning flags for a lack of confidence. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and the key is to identify with your strength. If you want to meet with Warren Buffet because you believe that you have something of value to offer, don't think of yourself as a nobody trying to meet with a rich and powerful person. Think of yourself as a person with something of value to offer. Both are true, but only one is someone who might get that meeting.

This guy is a Problem Solver. The
beard is a key part of the look. Grow
a beard and don't look like a salesman.
He also has a perfect record of
convincing cats on the first meeting
that he is friend, not food.
Since nobody wants to talk to a salesman, I stopped being a salesman. I started being a problem solver. When I needed to speak to the general manager of a local movie theater recently, I walked up to the counter and said, "I need to speak to the general manager." A minute later, I was talking to her. When I got my job at Valenti Motors, I walked in the front door, went to the receptionist and said, "I'm here for a sales position." A minute later, I was sitting with the general manager.

People find out what you are from what you show them. If you have something to offer, then approach with confidence. If you believe that you are a great candidate for the job, then you are doing them a favor by allowing them the chance to hire you. If you are selling a good product that solves a problem, then you are doing them a favor by allowing them a chance to consider it. If you are not confident that you have something of value to offer, why are you wasting their time?

The world does not know if you are the kind of bird that they eat or the kind of bird they make friends with until you tell them. Why tell them that you are the kind of bird they eat?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Better Terrible than Mediocre

Most people do not like criticism. They do not want to hear what they are doing wrong, and would rather believe that they are doing well. Compliments feel good, so we want them. I am no different, and I love to be told I'm doing well, but a compliment is like candy, pleasant but not healthy to get too much of it. I want to get criticism every chance I can get it. Masochistic? No, allow me to explain.

The title of this post is "Better Terrible than Mediocre" because if you are terrible at something, you probably know, or at least people might tell you. If you are mediocre or adequate, people probably won't tell you. Why upset you when you are probably doing a good enough job? But, if you do not know what you are doing wrong, you do not know where you need to improve.

When I managed Gamingetc, I had a very short time to become a very good manager. I worked for a woman who was very quick to criticize and point out flaws and errors, and she wasn't nice about it. Emotionally it was overwhelming, but professionally, it was one of the best and most valuable experiences I have ever had.

If this is how you imagine yourself,
how can you findways to improve?
Achieving excellence is like carving a sculpture. You remove all the material that is not statue, and what is left is statue. Likewise, if you remove everything that is not excellence, what you have left is excellence. Before you can know where to apply the chisel, you have to identify what must be honed, and criticism is the first step of this.

The prerequisite for any of this is humility, and humility was the most important thing I learned working for Gamingetc. Humility means understanding that no matter what you are doing, no matter how experienced you are, there is probably a better way to do it, and someone else may already be using that better practice. You are not yet the statue, but still the block of wood. Before achieving that humility, you will always be surpassed by that other person out there who is better than you, but if you are humble enough to understand that improvement is always possible and often necessary, then you will seek to improve, knowing that improvement means finding your own flaws. 

Ultimately, rather than measuring yourself by how good you are now, you will only measure yourself by how much better you are today than you were in the past. This means that if you have not identified a flaw to work on this week, you will not be able to look back next week and see improvement.

The fact that I can now work as a consultant and run my own business was made possible by that experience. I don't have a boss who can tell me what to focus on, what I am doing right and wrong. This is not the first time I have tried consulting. The last time, I spent two months following my plan before I realized that the plan had a fatal flaw: there was no monetization step. I was so proud of myself for making something myself that I wasn't looking for flaws and I didn't see one so big that it nearly drove me broke. I was a block of wood that thought he was a carved statue.

ConCardia is a convention based
card game in which players collect
cards while exploring the convention.
More info at

Feedback and playtesting welcome!
I would much rather hear a little criticism than have to look back and be figuring out why I failed. In producing ConCardia, I am always seeking feedback for how the game could be better. An influential and highly knowledgeable fellow in the game and convention worlds was generous enough to sit down with me and work through the new rules, and he tore them apart. Over half a dozen major changes suggested, some were somewhat fundamental to the rules. He suggested we change the way we print the cards. He suggested changing the basic card drawing mechanic of the game. 

I could have gotten defensive about the fact that he was suggesting so many changes to the game that I had made. After all, it was mine, from my own creative mind. That course of action would have resulted in a highly mediocre game being produced, and probably getting the same feedback from players after we had committed to certain printing and design choices and it was too late to fix them. Instead, I wrote down each suggestion, and almost every one of them on reflection was excellent. The game is vastly improved for his input, and I took that input before it was too late to implement it.

How I must see myself at the start of every day.
A blank block, ready to be carved into something
better, removing everything that is not excellence.
I think that many people do not like criticism because most of us do not understand growth correctly. We see growth as competence built on competence, like building a structure, one block on top of another. In this mindset, criticism would be like pointing out the flaw in a block, requiring you to move backwards, removing a block and replacing it. But if you use the wood sculpture analogy instead, you realize that your growth requires constantly identifying flaws so as to chip them away to the excellent that is underneath. 

Finally, let me remind you of one more very important thing. If someone doesn't care, they'll tell you it's fine and you are good enough. Giving good, useful criticism takes effort. People only put in that effort if they care about your improvement... or at least they care about what you are doing and care enough to be sure it is done right.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Do Something Impossible, Then Do it Better

There are two kinds of people who are really into cars: those who want power and performance, and those who are really excited about practical things like fuel economy.

I am in the second category. I really have no use for a car with over 200 or so horsepower. I have absolutely no use for a car with less than 20 MPG. This is why both my cars are 40+ MPG Volkswagen Diesels, and this is why I think that Tesla Motors is the most interesting car company to exist in my lifetime.

Tesla is in the news this morning because New Jersey officials have announced changes in regulations to make sure that the existing dealer infrastructure, who has donated large sums of money to officials, gets to keep taking their cut out of the car market at the expense of an innovative company that wants to sell directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man. Of course, if you have been to a car dealership ever, you can likely imagine why Tesla does not want to allow the average car salesman to try to explain the new concept of the Tesla to customers.

But I'm not here to comment on politics, much as I enjoy doing so. My point in writing about Tesla is that Elan Musk makes a habit of doing the impossible. After making his fortune with Ebay, he started three companies. One makes electric cars with a range similar to a gas car and a battery that can be charged in half an hour, which can drive from New York to L.A. without ever being out of range of a charging station, AND the company is profitable. The second is a commercial space travel company. The third is a more mundane solar energy company called Solar City.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Series, there is a place called Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Their slogan is "If you've done three impossible things this morning, why not top it off with breakfast at Milliways." Mr. Musk must have a frequent diner's card there.

Remember the future that authors like Heinlein, Clark, and Asimov described? Elan Musk lives there and is wondering when we're going to be joining him.

So, what is it that allows him to push the limits of technology and make money at the same time? Not just once but multiple times. Of course, I can't be sure, but from what I have heard him say in talks and read in his writings, I would conclude it's because he doesn't believe in impossible. He seems to have suffered some kind of brain damage that deactivated the part of the brain that says "that can't be done."

I have no doubt that he will prevail in New Jersey in the long run. He cannot imagine any other outcome, and when the leader cannot envision failure, those who follow cannot either.

How much easier is something to do if you know it can be done? When you get furniture home that you need to assemble, and you discover that the instructions are in Japanese, you don't give up. You give it a shot and figure it out. Why? Because you know that it was built to be assembled, and clearly it can be done. Even if you don't have the instructions, you're sure you can figure it out.

It's like you've read the last page of the novel and you know that the characters come out victorious. Reading the book is just to find out how they did it. What if you could read the last page of the novel of your life and know that you will be victorious? If you knew for a fact that you would succeed, you would certainly never give up. Why should you? You know you'll win in the end.

Why not live your life as if you had read the last page and knew you could not fail. Maybe you won't revolutionize transportation as we know it, or maybe you will.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Who is Your Audience and What do They Want?

Tigers rarely actually eat
cereal. They also rarely
wear neckerchiefs.
They say that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Well, if you lead a horse to a nice, juicy steak, you will probably not only fail to feed your horse, but probably spook him. Save the steak for your pet tiger. Lead the horse to grass.

As a consultant, I work with a number of different fan conventions and businesses. Most businesses think they know the answer to the question "Who is my audience and what do they want?" Do they really? Or do they just think they do?

Let's take Steampunk World's Fair, for whom I am Sponsorship Coordinator, as an example of one who does it right. Their primary audience is people who are interested in Steampunk, which is a subculture that includes literature, clothes, and a bit of music. That is who they are, but what do they want? The obvious answer is that they want great performances by bands and other performers that they enjoy and a great array of vendors. But, hose bands play a variety of venues and most of the vendors have online stores, so why do thousands of people make the trip to New Jersey for the Fair?

First and foremost, people go to a convention for an experience. They want to have fun. They want to be among their own people, having a relaxing and enjoyable time. You could have the biggest names and the best dealers, but if the vibe is bad, the event will be bad. Steampunk World's Fair creates that fun, engaging environment. From the web site, to the decorations, to the program book that looks like an old Victorian newspaper, to dozens of other little details, for one weekend in May, two modern hotels are made to feel like a great enclave of an age that never was.

Steampunks in their natural habitat: Piscataway, NJ
Among the work I do for this event is coordination of sponsorship. A sponsor has a very different perspective on an event. Many sponsors do attend the event, and, as an attendee, they love all the event has to offer. As a sponsor, however, they care about very different things. The fantastic program book made to look like a newspaper is exciting to them because its uniqueness will cause attendees to keep it, and the ad the sponsor bought in it, for years to come.

As a counter example, let's consider another business I have worked with. It is a game store in the Northeast United States. For those of you unfamiliar with game stores, they tend to be part retail store (selling board games, card games, trading card games, role playing games, and the like), but they are also part community space. Almost anything you can get at a game store, you can get online for less. People are willing to spend their money at a local game store because they enjoy spending their time at their local game store. The natural conclusion to draw about a store is that people go there for products and prices. For a game store, one would be mistaken. People go there for the experience. The products are just how the store monetizes that experience.

This game store, however, is very large and has become focused on product rather than experience. They have come to think that the customer cares only about price and event prizes, so they focus on what is on the shelves but fail to address the experience of the customer when he is in the store. They mistake a lack of other options in the local market for customer loyalty, believing that customers come back because they want to rather than because they have no other option. Customers say things like "There's something off about that store" and "It's not a comfortable place to hang out." The result is that in a business that used to demonstrate spectacular growth year after year, growth has slowed to almost nothing.

The goal is to give the customer what they want, not just what you think they want. You may be wondering how you find out what the customer wants. It's easy. Ask them. People love to talk and they love to give their opinion... if you ask for it.

You should also keep in mind that people are giving their opinion to everyone else. In the example of this store, all of the other stores in the region know what people think of them. Other customers know what people think of them. Random people on the Internet know what people think of them. Don't you want to know at least as much about your customer's opinions as your competition does?

It's a simple two step process:

Step 1. Just get into a conversation with a customer and ask "What do you think we do well? What do you think we should do better?"

Step 2. Shut up and listen.
Step 2a. No, seriously. Do not speak. Just listen.

You may be tempted to address their concerns, explain your choices, or even argue with the customer. Don't. Thank them for their input. Possibly ask questions to be sure you understand what they are getting at. Did they say something that surprised you or doesn't sound right? Ask a few more customers at random. If they all say the same thing that sounds wrong to you, it's probably not the customer who is mistaken. At the very least, you have a messaging issue.

Tigers like steak. Horses like oats. Mix them up and you're liable to be kicked by the horse and eaten by the tiger. What does your audience want?

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vending Victory from the Jaws of Vending Defeat

I had a mentor who told me a story which changed the way I approach almost every challenging situation. At the time of the story, he owned a store that sold collectible card games like Magic, Pokemon, and Yu Gi Oh!, and he was going to GenCon, one of the biggest non-electronic gaming conventions in the world. He had spend thousands of dollars to be there, and had brought a fantastic selection of all the card games he carried. Everything was set up and ready, but as the first day progressed, sales were terrible. No one was buying. Few people were even looking at his booth.

Vending with Worlds Apart Games at
Arisia in 2010
(That's Dan in the hat)
If you are a vendor reading this, you may have been in this situation before. What did you do? If you have never experienced this, ask yourself, what would you do? For many, including myself before hearing this story, I would have tried to make the best of the weekend, sell as much as we can, maybe slash some prices to move some stock, then limp home, lick our wounds and try to figure out what happened so we could do better at the next event... if we could even afford to attend the next event.

Our hero could not afford to fail this weekend. He had invested more than he could afford to lose, and he wasn't ready to lose. During the course of the first day, someone had come by with a large trash bag full of Heroclix and offered to sell it to him for $20. He'd never heard of Heroclix, but it looked like a lot of whatever it was for little money, so he bought it.

Having an already disastrous weekend, and having bought this bag. What would you do? Some would just throw the bag in the back of the booth to take home and figure out what it is next week. After all, this weekend is a disaster, who needs another thing to deal with. Others would see the bag differently...

He didn't know anything about Heroclix, but he knew that he had just bought over 100 of them for $20, so he grabbed an empty bin, dumped the figures into it, and put a sign on the front that said "$1". Within an hour, the bin was empty.
Heroclix Superman figure
For more information on Heroclix,
visit the Wizkids Website.

He proceeded to go around the convention, looking for other people unloading their bulk Heroclix collections, and by the middle of the second day, his original stock was pushed to the side to make room for an entire table of Heroclix figures. The event was more than profitable for him.

This story teaches a very important lesson. As long as there is still time on the clock, there is still time to play and win, but not by pressing a losing strategy. The more important part of this lessons is to realize is to think about how long your decision cycle is. When I was vending at conventions, I would think during the week prior as to what I would bring, how I would display it, and what the strategy would be. By the time I arrived at the convention and set up Friday, the die was cast. I was committed to that strategy, win or lose. No matter how Friday went, I stuck to it all weekend. My decision cycle was a week long.

His decision cycle is hours, sometimes minutes. You can always reevaluate your strategy on an ongoing basis, not just when the event is over, but a few hours in. When you get home on Monday, it is too late. When you walk out of that sales presentation, it is too late. When you lock up the shop at night, it is too late.

Don't wait until the game is over to tally your score and figure out why you lost. Figure out while the game is still going how you can win.

Do you enjoy reading this blog? Follow me on Twitter @michaelthehouse, click the like button on the side of the screen. Most of all, please share the link to this post so your friends can enjoy it as well.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to Make People Like You: Scratch Them Under the Collar

Early in my relationship with Amy, who is now the love of my life and the soon to be mother of my child, we were in the courting phase. Getting to know each other, learning what the other had to offer, and figuring out if this person is someone we wanted to get serious with.

As anyone who has dated a pet owner knows, getting a woman's animals to approve of you is half the battle. If the cat or dog approves, you are well on your way. This is a concept that has been much fodder for the romantic comedy genre, but it is quite true.

One of her cats is super friendly and loves everyone, but the other was skittish and standoffish. He was leery of this new, hairy creature who was hanging around. Both of her cats wore collars with name tags on them. Now, I know that cats like to be scratched on the back of the neck anyway, but I figured that a cat wearing a collar all the time might get particularly itchy there. I slowly approached the cat, rubbed his head a little and proceeded to scratch under the collar. He was purring contentedly in seconds.

I could have taken many approaches to this situation. I could have ignored the cantankerous cat and hope he comes around eventually. I could have tried to have a serious sit down talk with the cat, explaining that I'm really a good guy and that he should give me his paw of approval.

Does that second one sound absurd? Ask the cat nicely? That doesn't make sense. Even if he did understand me, which he doesn't, he doesn't care what I want. Absurd or not, think back in your life to times you have wanted something from someone. Did you try to tell them what you wanted, or did you consider that their collar might be itchy*?

*Most Americans have personal space issues and would not respond well to you scratching them under their collar. I recommend that for most situations you take this as an object lesson rather than specific advice.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Life Begins at 34

For much of my 20s, I had an overwhelming sense of running out of time. I needed to do something spectacular and make something of myself before time ran out.

During my 20s, I started a game store, a Rocky Horror cast, a sci-fi convention: all excellent things but nothing that I could really point at and say "that was my great accomplishment". Around the time I turned 30, I was at Wicked Faire and had the pleasure of meeting Terrance Zdunich, the creator of Repo: the Genetic Opera. I was talking to him about the fact that I was turning 30 and felt like I had not been able to accomplish much. Terrance pointed out to me that when he turned 30, he had not started working on creating the movie version of Repo, likely the accomplishment he will be most remembered for.

I was made to think of this again yesterday when I attended my step grandmother's memorial service. She had lived in Newton, Massachusetts for over 60 years. She was much beloved by many people, having done a great deal for them. She moved to Newton in 1948, and since then had touched a great many people, either through her work as a teacher of reading or simply by being an amazing and caring person.

I was amazed by things I heard about her that I had never known, and I worried that so much time had passed me by as I was still forced to move from here to there by the forces of my life. Suddenly, it hit me that she had been born in 1914, which meant that she arrived in Newton at age 34.

I turned 34 this week. Perhaps there is still plenty of time to make my mark. And maybe, just maybe, I have already begun.