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.

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?

On time and efficiency

How much do you value efficiency in your organization? Not just money or resources, but time? Is it important to you or is it one of those things that contains many shades of gray?

We only talk about the winners

I once coached a team of juniors to a championship after they went 3-13 in the regular season. We started the year 0-13, then won 3 games in the regular season and 6 more in the playoffs to capture the league title. They won.

I read a Wyoming history book published in the 1970s that said that territorial officials seeking statehood gave wild population figures to members of Congress — none of whom who had ever been to the place — probably counting all of the livestock in the figures they came up with. They won, too.

As it relates to goal-setting, sometimes the way you get there doesn’t matter, so long as you reach your destination. It might be ugly, it’s not always pretty and you can always revisit it and think of better ways you would’ve done it, had conditions been more favorable.

What usually happens, is something changes along the process to turn a losing situation in a winning one. How it happens, isn’t as important, so long as it actually happens. The subject title is misleading, because we do talk about the losers. But we usually talk about why they weren’t able to convert opportunities into winning moments.

Saying what you mean…

When you get the opportunity to capture an audience, do you make the most of your opportunity?

Do you say what you mean or do you lose people’s attention instantly because your message gets convoluted?

Sometimes, you only get once chance to say what you really mean. It doesn’t matter if you’re having an off day, if the timing isn’t right or whether you feel like or not.

The first time, in this instance, might be your only time.

What will you do with it? Will you rise to the occasion?

Reading, Writing and Big Ideas is a blog by Ron Bronson about starting a business, higher education, web strategy and life in the millennial workplace. Subscribe to the blog via RSS or email

Atlantic Yards project suffer a setback

Story

“While the Appellate Division Second Department’s decision to hear the case may delay the project for approximately six months let me be clear that the project will go forward,” Mr. Ratner said in a statement. “Atlantic Yards will be built and it will create thousands of needed jobs and affordable homes. This is all the more important as our City and country confront one of the most difficult economic downturns in history. We are as committed as ever to the development of this project and will continue to work with the City, State and local leaders to ensure that it goes forward.”

Plans for 16 skyscrapers, an 18,000-seat basketball arena for the Nets, and thousands of apartments at a site at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues has been affected by a string of legal challenges brought by residents and the ongoing credit crunch.

Opponents to the project have objected to both its size and the use of eminent domain by the state.

I don’t know how 16 skyscrapers and an arena will result in increased access to affordable housing. But what do I know?

I hope the Rays are ready for Brooklyn…this basketball thing is simply never gonna happen. RATner will be selling the Nets by 2010 and they’ll be in Newark by 2010.

Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto For Growth

Trolling old emails, I found a link to this that I sent to someone else last year. I liked it then by and large and still do now. Even if all aren’t applicable, it’s a nice framework for a paradigm shift. It’s for a design firm, but there are things in here I like. The challenge is incorporating your own ideas and finding what works in your field and/or your life.

An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Written in 1998, the Incomplete Manifesto is an articulation of statements that exemplify Bruce Mau’s beliefs, motivations and strategies. It also articulates how the BMD studio works.
1. Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them.

2. Forget about good. Good is a known quantity. Good is what we all agree on. Growth is not necessarily good. Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that may or may not yield to our research. As long as you stick to good you’ll never have real growth.

3. Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). Joy is the engine of growth. Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.

5. Go deep. The deeper you go the more likely you will discover something of value.

6. Capture accidents. The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question. Collect wrong answers as part of the process. Ask different questions.

7. Study. A studio is a place of study. Use the necessity of production as an excuse to study. Everyone will benefit.

8. Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment. Postpone criticism.

9. Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

10. Everyone is a leader. Growth happens. Whenever it does, allow it to emerge. Learn to follow when it makes sense. Let anyone lead.

11. Harvest ideas. Edit applications. Ideas need a dynamic, fluid, generous environment to sustain life. Applications, on the other hand, benefit from critical rigor. Produce a high ratio of ideas to applications.

12. Keep moving. The market and its operations have a tendency to reinforce success. Resist it. Allow failure and migration to be part of your practice.

13. Slow down. Desynchronize from standard time frames and surprising opportunities may present themselves.

14. Don’t be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

15. Ask stupid questions. Growth is fueled by desire and innocence. Assess the answer, not the question. Imagine learning throughout your life at the rate of an infant.

16. Collaborate. The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.

17. ____________________. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.

18. Stay up late. Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far, been up too long, worked too hard, and you’re separated from the rest of the world.

19. Work the metaphor. Every object has the capacity to stand for something other than what is apparent. Work on what it stands for.

20. Be careful to take risks. Time is genetic. Today is the child of yesterday and the parent of tomorrow. The work you produce today will create your future.
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