All That It Takes Is Your All

do hard thingsI am reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Silicon Valley legend Ben Horowitz.  I picked it up because I knew I would learn something, but also because I just liked the title.  Horowitz is good at the pithy tautological truism (“The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running a company.” )

Also, it must be said, I rather enjoy hard things (ultramarathons;  climbing Shasta; hiking the AT; making French pastry).

Launching a business is most definitely one of life’s hard things.  It is not enough to have a good product.  In fact, a good product is what we social scientist researchers call “a necessary but not sufficient condition”.  You can have the greatest product in the world, but you have to bring all kinds of other competencies to the table in order to get it noticed, bought, liked, and bought again.  If these things don’t happen, you don’t have a business, no matter how wonderful your product is.

I hear people talk about entrepreneurs being their own bosses and I say that’s all well and good but you *also* have to be your own employee, and then you have to decide if you’re going to be a good one, or a great one.

You also  have to be your own accountant, marketer, saleswoman, IT support staff, shipping and receiving…. and of course, your own labor. Until you can afford to hire someone to clean the bathroom…someone has to clean the bathroom.  And you better be much much better than average at all of it, or you won’t have a business.

I called the garbage collection company because they didn’t come out two weeks out of four last month, and our garbage situation reached crisis levels.  I called them and we worked it out, but when the monthly bill came, I noted that it reflected four pickups when one – and nearly two – were missed.  When I called them, the service rep said, Oh we don’t take anything off the bill if we miss.  You just gotta let us know.

So you get paid as if you’re doing the job, and rely on us to tell you when you’re not? I asked, and the customer service rep agreed, yes, this is the way it’s done.

You always hear people talk about passion in business but the real thing that succeeds is perseverance. Last week it was trouble with the credit card account, which for some reason doesn’t show up on my online account activity. Also the dishwasher, which has been life changing (hours spent on cleaning can now be spent on sales, plus my fingernails no longer peel off like decals) but has come accompanied by the most amazing flurry of invoices with strange codes and impossible-to-decipher commercial dishwasher insider lingo (4 THX SPL for X800 Mod SP 60 OZ, for example, means “case of soap’).

This week it’s the blast chiller door which is not closing properly and though the box remains an icy 25, cold air seeps out in little vapor trails shaped like dollar signs.  The vents in the ceiling aren’t venting because the painters painted over the ceiling screens, so we had to crawl up to the roof and fix that because summer is here and by 11a every morning the place feels like the devil’s own furnace, especially when you are scalding milk to 180 degrees plus for the batter, or once we get the big rotating convection ovens fired up.

tr

Another guy who liked difficult things.

There are other things, too – things with the accounting software and the air compressor, and my first attempt at an income statement and a business plan. I tackle and retackle these tasks, feeling as if the ground is constantly slipping away underneath me.  (Everything is hard when you don’t actually know what you are doing, Horowitz writes understatedly).

On the other hand we have three new customers carrying our canelés so clearly freeing up time from washing dishes to sell more delicious is working.

People raise their eyebrows when I tell them the plan for Cafe Canelé.  Friends tease me.  “Baking, eh?” said one.  “Seven years of post-graduate education, shot down the drain!”  I tell him, baking is what I do…it is not what I *am*, but he just snorts.  You probably don’t even remember how to do a conjoint tradeoff analysis, he sneers.  I tell him I employ the principles of price elasticity modeling all the time, but he just stares pointedly at my apron, which has chocolate stains on it.

In other news the investor platform Circle Up tells us we are not a good fit at this time, but we are welcome to appeal the decision. I do, though I know it’s probably futile and will likely only earn me another opaquely worded rejection, which it does.  I keep reading how investors are all jumping on the Lean In bandwagon, but so far have yet to see any of that love result in actual women’s businesses actually getting funded.

“These guys are at home coding with no social life,” one VC was quoted as saying when explaining why hoodie-wearing twenty-somethings were the safest investment bet.  “You know what you’re getting with these guys.”

I can’t blame them for wanting only to invest in Zuckabees….most of us do what’s easy and safe and then build all kinds of complex ex post facto edifices to prop up the logical inevitability of our choices.   When in fact, people more often than not hire, invest and trust on their gut, their hunches, and their first impressions all the time.  I have been the beneficiary of such, myself, hoodie or not –   it’s how I got my coveted job at the most famous beer brand in the world, not because of my Ph.D. from a Big Ten school, not because of my SAS coding capability, and not because of my 3.96 GPA, but because I went to school on an athletic scholarship. The hiring managers at this famous beer company had a soft spot for jocks, and just like that I was in.

I tell my employees about the Circle Up rejection and have to fight only a little to keep the shine out of my eyes and the shake out of my voice. You can’t take no personally, I say. Especially not the impersonal form letter these guys tossed off, I think but don’t say.

The Starbucks guy pitched more than 200 times before he got a yes, one of my employees reminds me chirpily, and I briefly consider pelting her with canelés but decide that is ultimately too much like a reward.

Besides, she’s right – an entrepreneur has no choice but to look at the word no as just another stepping stone to yes. And anyway, it may not matter…with more and more customers coming on line, it looks like the bootstraps might, just might, get long enough and strong enough to hoist us up the ladder to positive revenue flow, no outside investment help needed.

Then the battle really starts, as King Arthur found once Camelot was built.  In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Horowitz seems to agree, saying “by far the most difficult skill I learned as a CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology…it’s like the fight club of management: the first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.”

I laugh when I read this because talking about the meltdown isn’t necessary….all my employees have to do is wait for Cryday Friday, as I’ve come to call it.  The end of another Sisyphean week sometimes (well, often) finds me emotionally threadbare. I used to castigate myself fiercely for crying “like a girl” but I’ve found it’s surprisingly commonplace.  The two London School of Economics grads who pay me rent to incubate their business (they are launching a raw almond milk company) laugh merrily when they tell me about crying parked on the side of the highway on their way to JFK after an investor meeting in which the investor failed to even show up.

Building a multi-faceted human organization to compete and win in a dynamic, highly competitive market turns out to be really hard, says Horowitz, and though this seems incredibly elementary-my-Dear-Watson obvious it cheers me immensely to read it.

I am further cheered when I find it is not too late to register for the Vermont 50 ultra marathon race in the fall. I ran it once before, in pouring, icy, driving rain.  At one point in the race, officials told me, you need to make up 8 minutes between here and the next aid station, or we’ll have to take you off the course, we’re closing it because of weather.

muddy trailI hadj just completed mile 30 when I received this ultimatum – drenched and shivering, I’d already run one whole marathon and  here they were telling me (and smiling laconically while they did it) that I had to run *another* marathon, even faster, with wet shoes and socks to boot.

Eight minutes is a lot of time to make up in a five mile stretch, and this particular part of the course was mostly uphill and so muddy my shoes kept getting sucked off.  I figured I probably would end up getting taken off the course, but a funny thing happened as I hammered up the trail, warm tears mixing with the cold rain streaking my face: I found I *could* go faster, a little. And then, a little faster still.  Until I made up not just eight but a full ten minutes;  the bike escort with the walkie talkie that they’d sent to monitor my probable demise kept pounding his handlebars in excitement and hollering at me  “Now THAT is what an ulramarathoner LOOKS like!”

It was the strongest performance I’d ever turned in at a race, and it came just after the absolute worst performance.

I didn’t know I had that in me, I told one of the officials milling around after the race, and he smiled.  It’s amazing what can happen when you just keep going, and don’t quit, isn’t it?  he commented, and I agreed. Keeping on going is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for being a successful runner.  According to Horowitz, it’s the quality that separates great CEOs from the meh ones, as well.

“Whenever I meet a successful CEO,” he writes, “I ask them how they did it.  Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”

Keep going, friends.

The Business You’re Really In

caneles garden of flowers.pngDescribe your business in a few sentences, the application read.

As a business owner I am in the business of making decisions, but this one always flummoxes me.  Do I focus on where we’re at, or where we want to be?  Journey or destination?

We make a French pastry, I think about writing, then don’t.  I am in the business of trying to raise investor money which means being in the business of being clear and concise  while at the same time curiosity-provoking all whilst on a short elevator trip.  “We make a French pastry” is concise, though not very descriptive, for all its accuracy.  And although we do in fact make a French pastry, we are not in the French pastry business, any more than Uber is in the car business.

nun (3)

She’ll tell you what a canele is

I could go for cute and pithy: I’m in the business of delicious! But I’m in the marketing business and refuse to add to the burden of insipidity I see streaming before me every day on Twitter.

Don’t describe the product, tell a story about your customers!  the social media marketers suggest. The most common response when someone tries a sample is “oh my God” is what I want to write. One customer said “That’s so good it makes me feel like crying.”

I’m in the business of waking at 4a every morning, I could write.  I’m in the business of creating joyful mouths.  I’m in the business of farmer’s markets and regular customers that say where were you last week I missed you with a slightly accusing tone.

I’m in the business of addiction, I’m in the business of shock and awe and unrepentant and even self-righteous indulgence.   I’m in the business of so many other small artisan food businesses, all of us up early and driving through the dark to do what must be done.

Or maybe I’m in the business of something even bigger, something like brotherhood, which is the best word I can come up with to describe the happy fellow feeling of camaraderie that springs up around the sample tray as this Filipino grandmother and that Mexican agricultural worker and this Tesla driving VC cand that flight attendant in her  crisp navy American Airlines uniform moan and yell oh my God and furtively take two and even three samples.

18I am in the business of immediate gratification, I am in the business of giving your tongue a lesson in French cooking, where the ingredients are simple but put through a whole retinue of processes that cannot be skipped or rushed, which means I’m maybe most of all in the business of time.  To get to the oh my god takes eighteen precise steps taken over forty-eight hours, which is a lot of time indeed — it’s the same amount of time it takes to run 200 miles, the same amount of time it took me to drive from Austin Texas all the way to San Francisco fifteen years ago, it’s the average number of hours the average full time American employee works in an average week, according to Gallup.

People who work that hard typically don’t have time to learn the finer points of making a little known French pastry which suggests I am also in the convenience business.  And because canelé has an unapologetically French pronunciation, complete with funny little accent mark, one might say I’m in the ambassador business, bringing American customers an authentic taste of France, a place that many Americans resent on principle and rumor.

french flagMy French customers (of which there are a surprisingly steady supply in the south Bay) are unfailing (if a wee unflattering) in their expressions of amazement at finding something so authentically French in their mouths. Mais vous n’êtes pas français! they gasp, and then buy gratifyingly large quantities.  Some tell me mistily of their papa who made them canelés at breakfast Sundays in Bordeaux and then walk off having associated me, a very American-type American, with their French childhood as well as favorite pastry.

I’m in the business of subverting expectations, you could say.

Thanks to the universally appealing taste and texture profile of the canelé,  I am also in the business of weddings and twenty-fifth anniversaries and even three year old’s birthday parties. And after two years in business and the accrual of a large fanbase of regulars not to mention fellow farmer’s market vendors, I quite unexpectedly find myself in the friend-making business.

I am in the entrepreneur business, which means I am in the business of being uncomfortable.  The word ‘entrepreneur’ is (so I am told) Latin for “cashflow is now your number one concern”, which is something a lot of people don’t know, that even when you are not motivated by money, you are going to need it like a battery needs electrons, like a body needs water, like a baby needs touch.

And no matter what business it is that you think you are in – the piano moving business, the salad dressing business, the bridesmaids dresses business, the gluten free dog biscuit business – the business you are really in, is the numbers business.

You’ll also be in the growth business, and in the business of annoying everyone you know by finding in every single topic no matter how seemingly unrelated to your business, some potential opportunity for you business.

None of this will help you fill out the deceptively simple invitation to “describe your business in a few sentences”, though.

I am a writer  which means I am in the business of story-telling, so ultimately that is what I write on the application – the  story of how we are in the business of reimagining the cafe, sort of like The Moth meets Cafe du Monde.  It is the business of connecting people to each other, it is the business of bringing people together, it is the business of all of us, really, the business of the shared community of shared stories.

It only looks like a French pastry business.

 

 

 

 

Crashing and Burning and Hooking Up: Just Another Day at the Office

not the weekend hook-up of preference

Sales are way up and so are deliveries and therefore more driving is happening and so it was bound to happen – SMACK went the truck behind me right into the rear-end of my truck, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, there he stuck, hung up on my trailer hitch, for the better part of an hour while six lanes of rushing traffic flowed all around us.  The clack and roll of skateboards on concrete could be heard from the under-freeway skate park that sits on the corner at Division and Mission.

The two strong looking Latino men inhabiting the truck gone amok were polite and compliant but it must be said, not offering any insurance or license information until I  asked for it.  I can’t say as I blame them, I would be taking my cues from the rammee, too, if I were in the rammer shoes.   I snapped photos and saved to Evernote and we stood around watching as different configurations of men attempted to unhook our trucks from their unholy connection.

“You guys hit me pretty hard,” I said to the passenger. We watched as his companion, the errant driver, used the tire iron my husband keeps under the seat  to  do something that involved a lot of clanging but changed the hooked-together nature of our vehicles not a bit.   Personally I think he was avoiding dealing with me,  because he did know in fact that their truck hit me pretty hard indeed, as he was driving  – accelerating, even – at the time of impact.

“You sure did,” volunteered a skater boy who’d ventured over to watch the proceedings.  “Can I help?” he asked me, and I shrugged and indicated the hitch hitching the trucks together and he said “If you remove the hitch the bumper will be released?”

I looked and he was right and  both of the Latino men busied themselves removing the hitch and freeing the trucks and then very nicely restoring my trailer hitch (but upside down).

“Your truck looks ok – you’re lucky.  How about you, are you ok?” asked the skater boy. He is looking at my exposed right forearm with a frown.  I can’t blame him, the forearm in question is a hideous landscape of purple and peeling skin.

“That didn’t happen just now, did it?” he asked with some alarm.

We stare at the second degree burns on my arm, which actually look much better than they did earlier in the week, when a hose popped off a faucet and doused me with scalding water that instantly bubbled my skin into strange jellyfish-like shapes and colors.

Different accident, burned myself, I say to him with a smile.  He smacks his narrow fist into this palm with a meaty thwack and I jump a little at the sound.

“SMACK!  We all heard it. Thought sure someone would be hurt.  You were LUCKY!”

He drops  his skateboard onto the narrow median and slides away, a river of  traffic no more than twelves inches on each side of his bony tattooed arms.  To myself I think, huh, officially -literally – crashed and burned this week.  And survived to laugh with a skater boy over it.

The truck is not much damaged – at least, not in any obvious, see it with your eyeballs way, for which I am grateful.   As soon as the hitch is successfully removed we shook hands all around and off I went, figuring that was that.  I think no more of the incident other than to remind myself to turn a report in to the insurance company, not even the next day when I wake feeling as if I’d run an 18 miler the day before.

Man how far did I go yesterday, I think sleepily before realizing I haven’t run in more than a week (and I haven’t run long enough to make me sore the next morning in months) and I haven’t re-started yoga or weight lifting or rock-climbing or tennis or fast pitch softball but I *feel* as if I’ve done all of them, very recently, and with no rest.

When I try to pop out of bed and feel the weird new intractability of my lower back, I remember the crash.  The aches and pains follow a path from my lower back to my neck, with about twenty individual super achy points in between. But still, skater boy is right, I am lucky. I can walk, I can stretch, and most importantly… I can work.  No time to whinge!

crowds

Embarcadero crowded with SuperBowl visitors

herb steps helmetTraffic is insane in the city this Superbowl weekend  but with only 6 hours of nonwork in the past 72 hours I need to be out and about., so we mount the motorcycle and zoom down to check out the gladiatorial crowds which were claustrophobically dense, even spread all along the Embarcadero.  The motorcycle ride makes me exquisitely aware of my spine in a way that I wasn’t, pre-rear-ending.

The throngs of out-of-towners strolling the broad palm-lined boulevard remind me of the Italian tradition of the passeggiata, an easy going stroll that starts just after sunset, everyone strutting about in their finery and checking up on who needs to be gossiped about.

The men appear to be in uniform in their team hats and jerseys, but many of the women were dressed for a night out, in sparkly party dresses and sky high heels.   The sound of high heels clicking on concrete made my feet in their sensible motorcycle boots shiver with happiness. Some things about getting older are great, like not giving a rats ass how cool you look walking down the Embarcadero in a huge sweaty heaving mass of humanity.

flag and skyWandering the crowd I recall walking with my friend Sue one evening to a chorus of hissing, the charming flirtatious device of the men of Sicily when they see an unaccompanied woman they find attractive.   I sniff ten different kinds of perfume and am tempted to put my helmet on so I can flip the visor down but then I would have missed this awesome picture of the flag, backlit by the setting sun against the bluest sky in the world,  so I’m glad that I didn’t.

We think about stopping somewhere for a beer but it quickly becomes clear there will be no ‘just’ stopping anywhere and so we flee the madding crowds and twenty minutes later we are buzzing down Columbus Avenue which is equally throngy on this beautiful day.  cafe grecoWe decide to buy some coffee at the local roastery.  We chat with the owner Luigii for a bit and then head up the avenue to Cafe Greco, where we snag an outdoor table and share a pressed tomato and mozzarella sandwich, a beer and a Greco Grande and watch the crowds flow by.

In the coming weeks many things will happen, things that will make second degree burns feel secondary, things that will make crashing seem like a wake-up call.:  an employee will get word that her father has fallen ill and race to make his hospital bedside in time; a friend of my husband will take a freak fall on his snowboard, suffer stroke and a heart attack in rapid succession and  be removed from life support on his 50th birthday.  But all of this is still unknown to me.  There will be time for tears later, but on this day, the sun is warm and the breeze is mild and my husband sits smiling across from me.  Sometimes the small things are the big things.

The air cools noticeably and car headlights are coming on and the neons flicker to life as we start up the motorcycle and head home, yelling to each other in the slipstream for maybe the millionth time how it’s a shame we can’t find a good local stage and hear some music or a reading or comedy.   We’re not quite ready to go home yet, but nor do we want to hit a bar or go out to dinner.  BUT I’M FIXING THAT I shout to Herb, resting my helmeted chin on his shoulder.  And I am – I have made it my business, in fact, to fix it.  

DO IT HONEY! he yells over his shoulder and I give a whoop. We’re motoring up Broadway now, the part called Billionaire’s Row.  We pass the Getty house, the CEO of Oracele’s house, the house with a giant robot that gets a giant robot erection whenever the Oracle CEO is home (true story! I’d post a picture, but then deny you the pleasure of seeking it out  yourself on your next trip to San Francisco, which is akin to New Orleans visitors seeking out Anne Rice’s house in the Garden District). *

My whoop of enthusiasm startles an old couple walking a dog up Lyon Street.  They do not recognize us without our dog, Jake, but of course we recognize them – they do not approve of Jake, a chocolate lab who is affable to a fault and insists on approaching their dog for an enthusiastic greeting each time we see them. 

“He’s not friendly!” they invariably warn, yanking the leash of the nervous dog, who is meanwhile growling and frantically straining toward  Jake (who cares not one bit for showy displays of anxiety and wags in welcome).

The dog barks as the motorcycle sputters past and I give it the thumbs up and for a wonder, his master responds in kind, a smile splitting his face and making it look a million times kinder,  something my sweet husband must notice too because he beeps merrily as we sail up and over the hill, turn right, and head due west, the barking fading behind us as we head directly towards the ocean where the sun is setting in a fiery ball, suffusing the entire sky in such a beautiful pink and golden light I find myself  wishing like a child that the ride will go on forever.IMG_0097

 

*However if enough people leave a request in comments, I may post it after all.