What I learned in the shoe business

I once started an athletic shoe line.

Trust me, this is just as weird for me as it is for you. I almost never put it on my resume and since I don’t carry around samples anymore, it’s not even a conversation that comes up when people stop into my office.

The story of Omnivore went something like this. A Chinese firm was looking for a U.S. partner to market shoes after a major brand left their factory. I was not looking for a shoe deal, because that doesn’t make any sense. I was instead looking for a company to manufacturer Tennis Polo racquets, since in those days that was my big thing. The sport was only about a year old and I thought it’d be cool to see if that were possible. After a few negotiations and the timing of a kind investor, we had ourselves a shoe company and nary a toccer racquet.

Can’t win ‘em all.

I poured myself into the business. I learned more about supply chains, pricing and the marketing of athletic shoes to fill a MBA student case study. Not surprising, the exercise was doomed from the start because there’s a reason startup shoe brands don’t crop up very often and it comes down to capital and the fact that most brands here spend billions on marketing. We even signed up for shoe exhibitions with major brands and people from shoe stores were actually really good at giving advice. Any aversions I had to cold calling were exorcised that year.

Failure is a tough thing to talk about. I don’t shy away from it, it’s just feels less relevant in a world where everybody likes talking about their wins. Part of why I’m dredging this story up, is precisely because I think people need to tell their paths even when it resulted in them not winning.

The hardest part of talking about failure is figuring out where it fits in the grand scheme of your course. So for years, I just left Omnivore off my resume and rarely talked about it. It felt weird to talk about “co-founder of an athletic shoe startup,” because here I was working in a completely different market doing entirely different work. It was before the time when everyone was building an app, so I wasn’t as comfortable trying to explain it to people. Plus, I just felt weird because I’ve always tried to divorce my athletic pursuits from my professional ones so people don’t see me as a “former athlete,” which as a young black guy made me uncomfortable.

What helped me get some perspective were coworkers in these jobs. In the first few years of my career, I’d bring a few pairs of the shoes to decorate my office which led people to ask me about them, but save for those conversations it never came up.

Why?

Omnivore 5G (2005)

For a long time, I just didn’t think people would take me seriously.

The thing about so-called imposter syndrome isn’t this feeling that you aren’t good enough. It’s that other people are better. That your path to where you’ve landed isn’t as good as other people’s path and therefore, it gives me the platform to judge you as lesser than.

What’s funny about this — and what got me past this idea — is realizing that by diminishing myself, it gave people the chance to just take what I wasn’t saying as canon. In other words, by cutting out full parts of my professional experience, people would simply take stock of what they knew and make the assumption that I didn’t know as much. I’ve always viewed variety as a strength.

I watched Eddie Huang’s talk from #bigomaha in 2012 and he really doubles down on this idea of having lots of different hustles. I appreciated it, because even the people in the audience seemed to struggle with his narrative of having success being multifaceted in a world that tells you to pick a lane, stick with it and never ever deviate.

Your path belongs uniquely to you. Trying to fit your pathway into the way others have done it, will likely yield very different results. More importantly, I’ve learned that you just have to own the wealth of your experiences.

Rather than diminish what you’ve accomplished, figure out how to make sense of it and make it important within the context of where you want to be. The extra legwork can seem like a hassle or a distraction sometimes, so it can be a lot easier to just do what I’ve done in the past and just don’t talk about it. The greatest contributor to impostor syndrome is failing to give ourselves the license to thrive. In an effort to protect others from our bright light, we do everything we can to hide and diminish it.

I’ve become stronger and more empowered when I’ve taken stock of my contributions and share them with the people who are interested.

Spaghetti-Os and Knowing Your Place

This tweet arrived on a Saturday by the folks at Spaghetti-Os. This tweet has been deleted, because of Twitter outrage over the perceived insensitivity of using a mock pasta O to commemorate a solemn moment. Probably because our fake pasta friend has a smile on its face. That’s not Mister Pasta’s fault though.

Here’s the deal with all of the mock outrage, I get it on a level. But why I get it probably isn’t for the reasons people are howling. The real issue as I see it, is about knowing your place in the landscape. Tweeting for a brand is difficult.

On the flip side, deleting the tweet is a cowardly act that people need to stop. Look, it’s in the public record. Sure, you might be tired of people replying to it. But there’s something to be said for communicating and sticking to your message sometimes. The internet mob isn’t always right.

There’s this belief that the internet mob has to always be right. But it’s a pack mentality. Someone howls and finds a problem, others follow in an effort to be part of a trend and before you know it, there are legions of folks singing the same refrain. How many people who were complaining actually eat SpaghettiOs at all? Maybe they did as kids, understand that sometimes you just have to drown out the noise and carry on.

You’re not going to please everyone, whether in social media or life. So stop trying.

I originally wanted to write this post about the fact that brands can’t be everything to everyone. I’m not sure that I’d have ever thought to use a brand like this to post about something like Pearl Harbor Day. It’s just not something you’d ever expect from your canned pasta maker brand. To be fair, you want to generate interest and I can imagine someone working behind the scenes there who was hoping to get Retweets and Favorites to show their higher ups how they’re connecting and instead; you’ll have social media “ninjas” posting that whoever did it ought to be fired.

If only all of our work foibles were so visible that strangers would think to comment based on one action how good (or not good) you must be at your job.

Understanding your audience is a golden rule and having a strategy prevents throwing darts at a wall in the hopes of something sticking. Birds and certain insects communicate with each other on frequencies we can’t understand. Brands aren’t birds. Humans hear what you’re putting out there, making what you say more important.

Create memorable experiences

I recall back when MySpace was a popular thing, I must’ve added the band Splender to my favorites. They weren’t an all-time favorite, just a band Iiked at the time.

As bands are won’t to do, Splender broke up. A few months later, the lead singer was in a new band. The new band sent a letter from him to all listed fans essentially saying, “hey, I’m in this new band if you liked my old band check out my new one?!”

The failed premise here is this idea that someone who liked what you once did will be following what you do after, just because it’s you. I can appreciate this notion in theory.

Investing in people makes sense when you realize they posses world class skills. World class here only implies the field in which we’re playing on. It takes a different set of skills to be successful in every context. What’s world class in a rural town might not make you as successful in a large place and vice-versa. You might learn tactics or skills that make you successful but it’s not the same as being exactly the same in both contexts and expecting it to work. It takes dexterity to make different circumstances serve you best.

You have to give people a reason to care. It starts with creating a series of memorable experiences. The distinction begins with crafting a sustainable narrative that lives well beyond the time of what you’re doing. These situations vary in the minds of people differently, but I think you have to be meticulous in ensure every detail of how you cultivate an experience to ensure people leave with as good or better memories than you hoped. It can’t feel manufactured.

The thing is, creating memorable experiences takes work. It’s not something you can buy at the store because you were too busy to make it. It has to involve some semblance of deliberation and requires you to care about the end result. It’s not always easy unfortunately when other people get involved to execute these ideas perfectly or at all.

You need vision. Having made a few songs I remember a few years ago, doesn’t imply an ongoing relationship. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but if everyone does it, what makes you stand out amongst the fray?

“Facebook and Google do it wrong, Twitter does it better”

A very eloquent and passionate treatise from 4chan’s Chris Poole on social networks, identity and how we represent ourselves online.

This is a topic I think about a lot, because I never know to explain myself to people on the web. I don’t think many of us are one-dimensional and we all have lots of interests. But mine are pretty woven into the fabric of how I live and so, when I move seamlessly from doing very technical things on the web to working with kids on the finer points of their tennis games — I see no disconnect. Other people have communicated to me at other times that this is strange to them; wondering “well what don’t you do?”

Talking specifically about the web, I have lots of places that I’ve been a member for well over a decade. Communities that I’m an active part of where there are — for better or worse — strangers whom I’ve interacted with for the better part of my adult life who know a lot about each other and are brought together for interest and love of a common (often obscure) hobby, passion or game.  While these interactions are meaningful in context, they don’t necessarily translate to the day-to-day dealings of what I do. Nor should they, really.

Facebook is especially harrowing for me whenever I think about it. Here there is a pool of nearly 800 people with whom come from different aspects of my life at different times. There’s my favorite uncle and that kid from summer camp from a few months ago. My closest college friends and that girl from grade school that I haven’t seen in ten years but with whom it’s cool to “know how she’s doing.”

I digress, but that’s the challenge of trying to communicate your interests with disparate communities takes time, effort and becomes onerous. I’m not sure it’s the job of social networks to be tailored to the diverse ways in which we communicate or the ability to use say, a handle on a network is even the best way. But I do agree wholly that I have far richer interactions — and always have — on social mediums where I feel more anonymous, less exposed and more apt to communicate with the wider world without regard for pagerank, bios or who is going to take what I say out of context. It’s almost why I blog so little and why my real life friends are often bored by my internet persona via blogs.

It’s a contrast that I’m aware of and that Chris Poole articulates concisely in this speech.

Save our logo?

Proposed athletic rebrand on the right

Brand New reports a tiff going on at a proposed rebrand of Michigan State University’s athletic logo.

Rather swiftly, message boards rallied to boycott the proposed logo in various ways, including chanting “Keep our logo — clap-clap — Keep our logo — clap-clap — Keep our logo — clap-clap” at upcoming home games and the obligatory Facebook group, named The Old Spartan Logo, now has more than 31,000 fans. Shortly after havoc began to wreak MSU Athletics Director Mark Hollis issued a statement:

“The Spartan logo, posted on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site, is a single element of a comprehensive brand and identity project that will be unveiled in April by Michigan State athletics,” Hollis said in the statement. “As in all branding, the power of a single symbol cannot be appreciated or measured outside the context of the total presentation.”

The controversy has gotten so out of hand, that even the men’s basketball coach has had to chime in on all the rankling about the new look:

“Of all the days, this would be the dumbest time to talk about it, except I’m so disappointed with our group of alums that are complaining about it that it’s a great time to talk about it for two minutes,” Izzo said when asked for his thoughts on the change. “It’s a lot bigger than the team; it’s a lot bigger than the program. It’s about our athletic department and our university, which is way bigger than one game or one season.

“I have been mystified out of my mind over it. Not to make it bigger than it is, but to me, it’s a small deal.”

I suppose the question worth asking is, was their a way for Michigan State to head off the “controversy” at the gulch? Or is this just a whole lot of ado about nothing? Seems to take something that’s usually a positive and turns it into a negative and that’s never a good thing.

On personal web sites

In the era of personal branding, you’re not going to manage to be a very good web professional without some semblance of a personal web site.

Perhaps it’s just a link to social presence or whatever else, but it’s pretty important for you to have something, because you can best be sure that people are going to look and do their homework before they meet you.

Now that we have that fact out of the way, let’s talk about the details of such a site. Do you really want to give away all of your trade secrets? No, you don’t. But what do I mean by trade secrets, anyway? After all, you do want people to discover you, right? You need to let folks know how much you know your stuff.

How can you do that without giving away the farm? Here are a few tips, though your mileage may vary with each, I think it’s the sort of stuff you need to know, but that no one will tell you until well after it ceases to be useful:

1. Don’t copy the style of your favorite ___________. It makes sense that you’d go to the site of someone you admire, see what they do and maybe graft together a few styles into your own cohesive thing. The problem here is, you’re trying to make someone else’s style work for you. Maybe it can, but chances are, it’s going to be hard to pull off long term. Put another way, you might borrow a shirt from a friend, but if you two had to switch closets, it’s likely that you’re going to spend several hours of each day a bit uncomfortable. The lesson? Don’t worry about anyone else’s talents. Just do you.

2. Be concise. It can be tempting to tell your life story. Then you remember that no one spends very long on these sites, the analytics confirm it and you just spent an inordinate amount of time telling very personal stories that don’t make the sale. People love human interest stories, but they like them in books or in visual formats that don’t require them to work for it. So unless your entire presence is around a blog that you’ll be updating constantly and it relates directly to what you’re offering up, just keep it simple and clear.

3. Know your audience. Not just the people you want to reach, but the ones that are actually stopping in. Find out who they are and make sure when they get there, they’re getting what they need from you.

4. Understand your goal(s). Intent is huge. If you’re making a site to attract potential clients, that’s one thing. If you’re creating a web presence that’s really just an extension of your personal brand, but isn’t a place where you expect to generate the majority of your contacts/clients, etc., then you can take a different approach in developing your content. It’s really up to you. Your goals may change, but remember to stay the course. It can be tempting to change horses in mid-stream, but if you keep getting out of line to get in new ones at the supermarket, you’ll never checkout and leave the store.

Conclusion: I’m going back to the idea of minding your competition. Everything you say or put out there is open fodder for whoever is competing with you. While you’re not focused on them, as much as you are the stuff you’re doing, it’s important to mind your consistency.

The literature on your site should be enticing and drive interest, but if there are things that set you apart that you’re using to close deals in client meetings and in proposals, don’t go spewing this stuff on the web for someone to retrofit for their purposes and take.  Ideally, you’ll grow and adapt your messages and it won’t matter.

Remember, no matter what you say, if you can’t deliver on those promises it won’t make a difference how great your sales pitch is.

South Carolina v. Southern Cal

Apparently, the USC from the west wins this battle.

USC

When the South Carolina baseball team moves into its new stadium in the spring, its uniforms and hats might also bear a new logo.

The school recently lost a trademark case against “the other USC,” Southern California, a battle that was over the use of the “SC” logo.

The schools agreed in 1982 that each could use “USC” as a logo. But in 2002, Southern California filed suit against South Carolina’s use of “SC” and last week gained a favorable ruling from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

McKinney said the decision might only affect South Carolina’s ability to collect revenue from the “SC” logo. That wouldn’t necessarily force the baseball team to change uniforms or the school to jettison all its “SC” logos.

But if it can’t make money any more off the logo, the school could decide to abandon it anyway.

Southern California was able to show it had used its interlocking “SC” logo for a longer, continuous time. South Carolina was ruled to have abandoned its “SC” logo in 1982 and used the current one since only 1997. Southern Cal had adopted its logo “no later” than 1967, according to the patent office.

The only thing worse than these stories are the ones where colleges sue high schools in far off towns for using ripped off versions of their logos. Let this be a lesson in the wonder of investing in creativity. If you create your own unique marks and find a way to identify yourself in your own way, you can avoid this sort of thing.