A few years back, we watched the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and one scene has stuck with me ever since. In fact, I included a description of it in Chapter 8 of Big Enough:
Lawrence is talking with a couple of fellow soldiers, one of whom has an unlit cigarette. Lawrence pulls out a match and lights the cigarette. With the two soldiers watching, he then puts his fingers on the match and slowly snuffs out the flame without a flinch. One of the soldiers, named Potter, is mystified and tries the same trick, exclaiming as his fingers touch the flame, “Ooooh! It damn well hurts!” Lawrence’s reply is “Certainly it hurts.” Potter looks askance at Lawrence and enquires, “Well, what’s the trick then?” Lawrence says, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
The trick is not minding that it hurts. That simple idea has had a big influence on me and my perspective. More from that chapter:
Now, admittedly, the struggle and pain I’m referencing in the context of Sachi and me is symbolic. We are fortunate not to experience real pain or suffering. I recognize that. But I also think too many privileged people lose sight of how it feels to be challenged, to struggle, and to feel a bit of pain.
This is especially true when income rises. Suddenly, money becomes a means for banishing any kind of pain or strife. You can hire a cleaner, mover, or house painter. Checking the car tires gets your hands dirty. This version of the good life means that you don’t have to worry about the details. They are someone else’s problem and you’ve earned the right to push those problems out of your life. Besides, you’re busy.
If you spend your whole life working to avoid the things that might hurt, or that represent a challenge, you risk becoming an entitled and oblivious prick or someone so fragile that reality feels like injustice.
In my first years with Sachi, I was much more mindful of this version of pain. I pushed back against projects like painting our house ourselves or having a stringent budget. From my perspective at the time, we had earned the right to avoid going to all the trouble. But over time, I learned from her that there is real power in putting your head down and pushing through, even if it hurts, or takes time, or is inconvenient. That willingness to do the work is what has changed, and I now see it as a necessary and important part of being a productive and well-adjusted person, and one that comes with a kind of satisfaction that’s not achievable through just spending money. The trick is not minding that it hurts.
Here’s the scene from the movie:
Learn more about Big Enough – Building a Business that Scales with Your Lifestyle.
There comes a time in every vehicle owner’s life when they are forced to test just how far a tank of gas will go. We see the gauge point to the upper case “E” and say it’s arbitrary; just a label. What matters is what’s inside the tank. We can push it a little farther.
Last week, we found ourselves in a similar situation. We let the gauge creep uncomfortably close to the “E” and backed out of our slip to get gas. As we approached the marina, which is a short hop from where moor the boar, Sachi asked if I had my wallet. As usual, I didn’t. This has been one of the adjustments to our island and COVID lifestyle. Wallets, to me at least, seem less important; another thing to lose while on the boat. Thankfully, Sachi had our back.
As we parked the boat by the pumps, we saw signs on the pumps that said “Temporarily Out of Order”. Assuming it was a short-term issue, we pushed the gas lower. One more trip out to catch crab.
Soon the gauge became an obsession. I found myself glancing down every minute as we made our way back to the marina. We couldn’t repeat this trip without more gas.
The next day, the pumps were still out of order. I called the marina office and asked about a timeline. The person said, apologetically, their gas line was “busted” and it might be two weeks before it was fixed. If I’ve learned anything on Orcas Island, it’s that two weeks could, and probably will, mean two months. We had to make a call. Do we dock the boat and wait for the repairs, or do we try to make it to the next closest marina in West Sound? I called the West Sound Marina to be sure their gas was working. It was.
As the boat planed-off and we left Deer Harbor, I looked at Sachi and said, “Well, here we go!” We were on an adventure and neither of us knew what was to come. The chance of running out of gas was small, but still worrisome. I watched the gauge the whole way and tried to estimate how low it was. A 16th of a tank? A 32nd? It didn’t matter, we were committed.
We had never needed to buy gas at West Sound Marina, but quickly found the solitary pump on the dock. Unlike your average gas station with a credit card interface, dock pumps are often guessing games. Sometimes there is an intercom you can use to talk to the office and ask questions. Other times they see you and turn on the gas. In this case, I said “Hello, is anyone here?”, thinking an intercom might pick up my voice. After a bit of silence, I pulled the handle off the pump and flipped the lever to turn it on. It cranked up and I was sure we were on our way. After an initial splash of gas, it stopped flowing and I worried we’d used the last drop and would be stranded.
I called the office on my phone and asked if they were out of gas. He sighed and told me “No, we have plenty of gas. It’s on a timer that stops the flow. If you’d read the sign on the pump, you’d know to call first so we can turn it on.” Then he added, with a bit of admonishment, “Try again, hopefully you didn’t lock it up.”
I glanced at the pump and saw that there was a small sign. It was easy to miss, probably because it looked like the kind of regulatory sign that tells you not to smoke while pumping gas. In Orcas Island terms, it was far too official looking to be noticed. There was no handwriting, highlighter marker, or tattered edges.
Feeling a little sheepish, I tucked my phone into an external breast pocket that zips vertically and stepped into the boat. Just as I bent over, I heard a thud and than a gasp. Not knowing what happened, I turned to Sachi, who was reaching down with a helpless look on her face. I said, “Was… was that my phone?” Yes. It was. Dammit. I felt so embarrassed. I glanced at my unzipped breast pocket, which should have held it safely.
There was an awkward silence as we both reckoned with the event. For Sachi, this was another in a long line of instances where my clumsiness or carelessness cost us time and money. She didn’t have to say anything and she didn’t. We both knew exactly what had happened and why. We have learned that the only path out of these situations is problem solving, and having a backup plan.
My phone is an iPhone X that was recently returned to me with a new $300 screen after I dropped it on gravel and shattered the screen. Now that $300 and the rest of the phone were at the bottom of the sea. The phone is supposed to be waterproof. There was hope.
We started to consider what could be done. I have retrieved things like sunglasses from the bottom of lakes in the past, but this was different. It was cold and I didn’t have a wet suit. But, just up the street from the marina is an organization called SeaDoc Society that is focused on ocean health. Our friends work there and we knew they had dive equipment. Maybe just a snorkel, fins and a towel would be sufficient? Sachi texted our friend, Erika, to ask if there was any chance they could lend a hand. They were just about to leave the office. No dice.
The good news was that our tank was full with gas. That problem was solved and I needed to pay in the marina office. I made my way up two catwalks and across a driveway to the entrance of the office, where I was met with someone wearing a mask. I checked my pockets. No mask. So, I walked back across the driveway, down the catwalks and got a mask from Sachi before turning around and walking back. Once again, Sachi had our back.
As I walked up, a salty older man was pushing a cart with a gas can toward the pump and he courteously moved the cart aside to let me go by. On this trip, I made it into the office, where I could finally finish the process. Then the person behind the counter asked a question I didn’t expect, “How many gallons did you get?” I said, “What? I have no idea.” He lowered his head. The same sign I missed before also said to record and report the gallons. More embarrassment.
I asked if I could use his phone to call Sachi and ask about the gallons. He said, “No,” as he motioned to his co-worker. She was on a call, because, of course she was. As he looked over toward her, he saw an event about to unfold on the dock. The salty guy was just about the turn on the pump, which would have wiped the number of gallons he needed for my transaction. He dropped everything and ran to a window facing the dock and yelled from the office “STOP! STOP! DON’T TURN IT ON!!!” His efforts caught Sachi’s attention, and she stopped the man just in time. Then, Sachi was able to read the gallon count and yell it to me on the catwalk.
For the third time, I walked back to the office to finally buy the gas. As he was running our card, I told him I had just dropped my phone in the water by the pump. He thought for a second, and said, “I wonder if Gavin is around? He’s a diver and was just in his wetsuit. Maybe he could help you get it.” I couldn’t believe my ears. He handed me a post-it note with Gavin’s name and number. A sliver of hope appeared on the horizon.
After getting back to the boat, I called Gavin on Sachi’s phone and left a voicemail. He didn’t call back for 15 minutes or so and it felt like an eternity. We wandered around the dock and I chatted up a lady refinishing wood trim on a Chris Craft Corsair. It wasn’t hers and we both agreed it was not a practical boat for the San Juans. Beautiful, but more of a lake boat.
I called Gavin again and spent time looking down into the water between the dock and boat to see if I could see it. I saw a crab and some shells, but no phone. Then, just as I was writing a text to him, Sachi’s phone vibrated in my hand. It was Gavin. He was working on his boat in the same marina and said he could come take a look.
Within a few minutes a young guy appeared on the catwalks and we got down to business. He’s hired as a diver for cleaning boats and other underwater duties. He told us his hourly rate and added that it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. The water was probably about fifteen feet deep, with good visibility. After assuming the phone was gone, we were prepared to pay him for multiple hours to get the phone back.
In a moment of awkwardness, we negotiated the cost of the retrieval, which was limited by the cash that Sachi and I had with us. This time, I had my wallet and we settled on $100, which was close to everything we had. Within 30 minutes he returned in full diving gear. The water in our area remains in the 50s(f) year-round and we both watched as he added gloves and a hoodie to his wet suit before slipping into the water.
I probably could hold my breath for the time it took Gavin to retrieve the phone, but not in that water. Within a minute, he returned to the surface, with my phone in hand. It was working just as it was when it left my pocket. Man, the relief. We were all amazed.
We paid Gavin for his time, boarded Short Story and headed back to Deer Harbor to check the traps. We brought home three Dungeness crab. If you consider the market price for crab, they helped pay for the return of my phone, so we couldn’t complain.
Despite all the embarrassing mishaps and miscommunications, we felt so fortunate. We made it to the marina. My phone was waterproof. Gavin answered my voicemail. We retrieved the phone from the bottom of the freaking ocean. It all felt so quaint; a small town network of divers and boaters, who are also neighbors, looking out for one another. And of course, there’s always Sachi with our backup plan.
The next time I go to West Sound Marina, I’ll read the signs and record the gallons. But I’ll also wonder why it works the way it does. Why don’t they have an intercom, or the ability to track the gallons from the office? The best answer and one that will suffice for now is this: Welcome to Orcas Island.
This story originally appeared in my weekly newsletter Ready for Rain. You can get stories like this in your inbox each week by subscribing to my newsletter.
Yahoo recently shared the news that, after 20 years, Yahoo! Groups is shutting down. It’s no big surprise, but seeing this news took me back to the early days of online communities and my job as an online community manager.
In 1999, I was fascinated with online communities and learned that a colleague at the company where I worked had set up an eGroups site for a small group of customers of the company. She showed me how it was working and I was so excited. I quickly started working with her on the site. Over time, I became the Online Community Manager and grew the community to have thousands of members, who were customers using the company’s software.
eGroups was bought by Yahoo! in 2000 and became Yahoo Groups. The discussion board/email list system worked most of the time for our communities, but there were bugs and issues. What I remember most was not having any way to get help or support. It was my job to make the community work and I had no one at Yahoo to ask for support. It drove me crazy. There was a Yahoo! Group set up for support issues, but it was rarely used by Yahoo employees. When they did show up, it was like a resurrection. I thought, “they live!”. But my hopes were usually dashed by them posting a message about features and not answering any questions.
We used Yahoo Groups for a couple of years before moving to Web Crossing, which was a paid and supported platform that I liked. After three years of being the online community manager, I left to start Common Craft in 2003. I felt like I had earned real experience doing a job that was about to become essential in a wide variety of companies. That was the plan for Common Craft: online community consulting.
Looking back, it’s easy to see what happened at Yahoo. Yahoo Groups was a free, popular, and well-used product that was mostly stable. But I’m sure it cost more to run than it produced with ads. To Yahoo, it was a cost center and they couldn’t afford or didn’t care enough about it to support and develop it. So, in my experience, it mostly languished and was used by people who just needed a free service and didn’t care about the issues.
Even in the context of all the frustrations with it, I’m thankful it existed when it did. It was a free resource that allowed me to cut my teeth in the online community management world and develop my own perspectives on how community technology should function.
In the corner of the guesthouse stands a plastic fold-out table that is the closest we’ve had to a dining room table in two years. At the Yurt, it hosted crab feasts, laptop work, building plans, and puzzles. Most recently, it was the only table in the guesthouse and like many tables, it collected inconvenient things. When something like a camping mug, that needed to be stored with the camping supplies, but needed an interim home, the table was it. And it performed admirably.
Today, just a couple of months from when we expect (hope?) to move in, I can barely see the table thanks to dull cardboard boxes, stacked like impossible skyscrapers. Under the table are boxes of Big Enough, samples of stained fir, and a box of dog toys at dog level. But what constitutes the cityscape is shipped boxes of fixtures and accouterments that will someday make the jump to our walls, doors, floors, and more.
Over the past six months, we have collected a large amount of temporarily inconvenient things. This is, in part, because we are the designers. We enjoy the responsibility of discovering and selecting the exact products we want, without someone in the middle. We order it all ourselves and become the warehouse until the move.
The box closest to me, according to the marker message scrawled on its side, is “Front Door Deadbolt and Handle”. Inside is a Baldwin Minneapolis Handle Set and with keypad entry, in satin black.
When the door handle arrived I took it out of the packaging and held it in my hand. It felt strong and well-built. The latch mechanism was smooth and sounded like a precision instrument. It was heavy, too. When mounted on a door, you won’t feel the weight directly, but there’s still part of you that knows, just by how it feels, that it has weight and strength.
Over a year ago, I shared our building plans with our architect friend, Alonso, and we talked about some of the themes he had learned in architecture school. Alonso made a point that I’ll never forget. He said to think about the features of the house that people will touch and how it will feel to them; the surface of countertops, the floor under bare feet, door handles, and sink hardware. The sense of touch is easy to overlook and one of the only ways to relate a sense of quality.
When I held the door handle for the first time, I imagined how it would feel on the door when someone visits for the first time. To me, it felt solid and well-built, the way a front door handle should. It is a security feature, after all.
The skyline of boxes have come to represent, in my mind, a vision of how the house will look and how we’ll use it. At best, they are a collection of educated guesses. At worst, something marked off a never-ending to-do list.
On top of the door handle box is a box marked “Floor Outlets” and it, too, is the product of guessing. One of the biggest guesses of all is where to install outlets, or what electricians call “receptacles”, throughout the house. Building codes require them every eight feet, so most of the decision making is easy and we err on the side of having too many. But there is a difference between what is required and what we want and in this, we worked hard to anticipate how we would use the house.
A large portion of our daily lives will be spent in the “great room”, which is essentially a box that holds the kitchen and living/dining areas. We will have a fireplace and TV on one wall, which means our seating areas will be close to the middle of the room. In thinking about using this space, something became very clear. We would need to power devices in the center of the room. Instead of stretching cords from some far off outlet, we decided to put two of them in boxes recessed into the floor. We chose these.
The idea of outlets in the floor is easy. What’s a real challenge is deciding where to put them. The goal is for them to be hidden under furniture or a rug so that electrical things like computers and lamps can magically be powered where we need them.
The problem is that, through all our planning, we’re still not sure where the furniture will be. We have ideas, but the reality is that the furniture arrangement will evolve. The great room is a blank canvas, capable of morphing into whatever we want over time. How, in this context, do you decide where to put the floor outlets? You guess and hope for the best. We tried to imagine where each of us would sit in the living room and put the outlets there.
Beside the floor outlets is a box labeled “deck step lighting”. These are lights that will be recessed into the vertical or “riser” steps of our deck, making the floor easy to see. In talking to the electrician, he said to consider how the lights would look from the water and pick lights that reflect down and not out, or up. This put me on a path of learning about light pollution and the “Dark-sky” movement.
One thing I love about living on the island is the incredible darkness at night. After years in the city, it’s remarkable how clear the stars appear at night. The electrician’s recommendation is smart all the way around. By being deliberate about our exterior lighting, we can reduce light pollution and achieve a soft, elegant look that comes from indirect or reflected light.
The table has many more boxes, and each one represents hours of research and a healthy dose of guesswork. Maybe someday, we’ll get the table back and resume the feasting and puzzling. Seeing the surface of it again will be a sure sign we’re in transition.
From the moment I connected with Robin, it felt like we were friends. He’s in the west of England and I’m in the Pacific Northwest of the US. We’re thousands of miles apart but have similar interests and weather. Thankfully, we also share a fascination with business and entrepreneurship. I sincerely enjoyed our discussion.
Listen to the Episode “Small Business is the new Big Business” on Apple Podcasts.
Here are a few 30 second clips:
If you’ve ever considered starting a business, you’ve thought about business models and how you’d make money. Most entrepreneurial people start by putting their expertise to work in the form of freelancing or consulting. They have an hourly rate and the more hours they work, the more money they make. Whether it’s lawn care or a global consulting company, the business’s income is connected to hours worked. More hours, more money. This is a service business.
Service businesses, and especially small ones, are often an expression of someone’s passion or expertise. They are good at something and see an opportunity to earn a living doing that thing. For some, the business is simply the vehicle for managing the transactions; a detail. Think of a hairstylist, architect, or graphic designer. Their expertise isn’t necessarily running the business, but doing the work.
Product businesses, on the other hand, break the connection between hours and income. Instead of earning income from an hourly rate, humans work to create a product that earns money for the business. These businesses have the potential to earn income far and above the hours that humans put into it. Because income is not tied directly to hours worked, they can scale.
Product businesses are riskier because they often require an upfront investment. A firm might spend a year designing a product only to discover no one wants it. They also require a skill set that’s different from the domain expertise or passion that goes into a service business. The leaders of product businesses often have to be passionate about the product as well as the overall business, which might include engineering, industrial design, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, support, and more.
I think this distinction is both important and useful because it offers entrepreneurs a choice, or a path to follow. Understanding the fundamental differences between the two models can help you consider what business is right for you.
Here’s how I put it in the book:
A service business ties human labor to income. Humans embody the value. More haircuts, more money. A product business breaks that connection. Human labor is still necessary, but it is not tied directly to income. Instead, people work to create a product that becomes the business’s source of income. The product embodies the value and is often regarded as intellectual property (IP). And unlike consulting hours, a product can scale. It helps, too, that products don’t take vacations.BIG ENOUGH, Chapter 1: More Money, More Hours
Later in chapter 1, I dive deeper into scalability, the realities of product businesses, why they are attractive to entrepreneurs, and what skills are helpful in making them successful.
Learn more about BIG ENOUGH.
If this message resonates with you, please consider liking or retweeting the message below:
The big difference between product and service businesses. A quick explanation. https://t.co/EASj5jnPw6— Lee LeFever (@leelefever) October 13, 2020
When I first talked to Alain about a podcast, I saw that we was in Montreal and his name was Alain Guillot. All signs pointed to him being a French speaker, or having a French-Canadian accent. It turns out he is Colombian, with a Hispanic accent. I brought this up and learned he has a French father.
Alain is a very genuine and thoughtful interviewer. He read BIG ENOUGH, which always makes a big difference. I enjoyed talking to him and I think you will enjoy the interview.
You can watch the interview here:
Learn more about BIG ENOUGH.
We had a natural gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.
Having burned wood for the winter on Orcas, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience.
This decision turned out to be the first of a hundred decisions about the fireplace “unit” for the house. The story of getting it right provides a real-world look at home design and what it takes to create a one-of-a-kind feature.
The Big Idea
Early in the design process, we saw an opportunity to have a two-sided wall (interior and exterior) that serves as a home for cooking, heating, and entertainment. Inside, we would have a fireplace and TV. The outside would have a second fireplace and grill.
Here’s how it was framed:
Below is one of my first 3d models of the unit from July of 2019.
It’s a relatively simple idea that is also an important one. The fireplace unit will be a central part of the house and the heart of our activity. Getting it right was more of a challenge than I would have imagined.
At the beginning, we had to think about the big questions like how it looks, what it’s made of, and how we plan to use it.
From the beginning, we agreed that the surface of the unit could be hot-rolled steel, which is made from 1/8th inch thick steel sheets. We love steel because it’s durable and beautiful. Metal seemed right for a unit with a grill and two fireplaces. As with many of the finishes, we want it to be “bulletproof”.
Initially, we focused on the interior unit, with fireplace, TV and storage. It would be the most visible element of the house and set the tone for everything else.
I looked forward to the design process and, as usual, assumed it would go quickly and easily. What happened in reality was a long process of iteration; one design after the other. Between us and John, there was always a new idea.
Let’s look at a few versions of the interior and how they evolved. As you’ll see, it’s mostly a process of subtraction, which I think is a good sign.
The first concept was a unit that was placed in front of the wall, protruding into the room. It was mostly covered in steel, with a recessed section for the TV, etc.
It seemed like a good idea. The TV would be beside the fireplace and not above it. But, it was boring and we saw opportunities to to add a bit of style.
Then we had a revelation. What if the unit wasn’t a big wall of steel with recessed shelves? What if, instead, the drywall behind the unit was more visible and the elements were simply placed in front of the wall? This seemed like we were on the right track, as it made the space feel more open.
We tried a number of different configurations with shelves and cabinets. The one below was one of my worst attempts, but it got us further down the road.
We soon realized that we needed to get specific about what components would live in the unit. This way, we could use start designing with the right dimensions. I sent this to John:
For the first time, we felt that we were on the right track. Instead of a big monolithic piece of steel, it was becoming a more open and purpose built unit.
This model became our more stable version and one that hasn’t changed significantly:
The same is true for the exterior. After a few tweaks, it was stable and we were feeling good.
The Pressure Is On
We told Drew that the design was close to final and that we were ready to get the work started. He called a friend from out of town who planned to come do the metal work. This meant that we had to have everything buttoned-up so we didn’t waste this person’s time.
The day before the metal worker arrived, we had a call from John, who was having second thoughts about the steel. Before pulling the trigger he and I agreed to at least entertain the thought of using brick as the main surface of the unit. Initially, Sachi was happy to consider the options and I created a model as a test:
That evening, Sachi and I had a design discussion. She was not fully invested in the brick and wanted to stick to the steel surface. I could see her point. Within a few hours, the brick discussion had ended and the arrival of the metal worker was imminent.
We told Drew that we would have final designs ready on Friday morning, less than 48 hours away. Our goal was to meet on site and work through the entire design.
John took on the challenge and, over Wednesday night, designed what became our final specification. We reviewed it, made a few tweaks on Thursday and spent Friday going over the details with the crew on-site. Things looked to be buttoned up and we left feeling good.
Of course, we were not done.
The following Monday (yesterday) ended up being full of more questions about the unit. The vision was clear and agreed upon, but some details needed attention before work could begin.
At the last minute, we ended up adding an access door under the grill and using stainless steel on the front of the grill cabinet.
Right now, we’re feeling relieved and above all, confident that we ended up with a design that we love. Decisions on details will keep coming for a while, and that’s all part of the process of getting it right. We iterate our way to what we want.
I’m excited for the day, probably in just a few weeks, that I can show you the final product.
This article originally appeared in the Ready for Rain Newsletter, #78 A Place for Fire
I learned about Louis and Kyle through a mutual connection and did a bit of research. Their show is new-ish and they are both college students. In terms of the podcasts that might move the needle in terms of book sales, this didn’t seem like a huge opportunity. But that didn’t matter. I was intrigued by two college students doing a podcast and looked forward to the conversation.
Here’s how they describe their show:
Sharing tools for success in entrepreneurship, investing, self-education, and fitness through interviews with inspiring mentors.
The interview ended up being one of my favorites, in part, because Louis had read the book and they were both full of observations and great questions. They showed a genuine interest and fascination with BIG ENOUGH and that made all the difference. They were also kind and engaged. I don’t have many college students close to me, so it was great to hear their perspectives.
Listen to the episode here or below:
Learn more about the Louis and Kyle Show.
Since the pandemic, a new class of apps have been introduced that are designed to make videos and presentations more interesting. One of my favorites is the mmhmm app, which is software you download to your computer.
The neat thing about mmhmm is that it allows the presenter and presentation to be on the screen at the same time. It’s in beta and a little buggy, but works.
Today I published the first video I made with the app. It’s an introduction/preview for the Common Craft video we published this morning. The video is called Clear Communication in Presentations. Here is the intro I made with mmhmm: