Speaker | Entrepreneur | Author

Sam Davidson's blog

Every Tuesday, I write.

I share an idea I’ve come up with, a struggle I’m wrestling with, a puzzle I’m turning over in my head, or a story that I think the world needs to hear. You can sign up to get these emailed to you each Tuesday morning by clicking here

On Thursdays, I write at Batch about a business idea or concept, usually through the lens of my day-to-day work as co-founder and CEO or from the viewpoint and lessons learned of our purveyors. Follow along here

On LinkedIn and Twitter I often toss out quick thoughts and ideas that aren’t ready for longer posts just yet or something that I’m seeking feedback on. 

If you'd like to get more ideas like these sent to you each day, it's easy: sign up here.


 
Beer, Bread, Boeing, and Best Laid Plans

It’s easy - you just open a beer, pour it in the bowl with the bread mix, stir, dump it into a pan, and bake on 350 for 45 minutes. Pull it out, slice, and ta da! You’ve got yourself a tasty loaf of bread.

This is all it takes to create bread in a variety of flavors if you use Soberdough bread mix. (Truth be told, I usually crack open two beers so I have something to drink while the bread is baking.) When I first met the founder, Veronica, at a community festival in 2013, I knew her product would be a great fit for what we had just launched at Batch. It was a perfect blend of great mechanics and great optics.

Optics vs. Mechanics

I’ve long been fascinated by how things work (and how they are made) and even more fascinated when they look great. For quick examples of what I’m taking about, take a look at everything Best Made sells. Or Cotton and Moss (they’re like Best Made but for your garden). Lots of time and planning went into the creating and functioning of a product (mechanics) and some more time went into how they’d make it look and even talk about it (optics).

If you find a company, product, or service that has great mechanics (how it works) and great optics (how it looks), gobble it up. Go long on their stock, get in as an angel investor, buy all you can and give it away as gifts. You’ve found something special and worth sharing.

Of course, not every company will have flawless performance forever. The test of their resilience comes when they need to fix a problem and how they do just that. My greatest mistakes (in life and work) have happened when I tried to fix a mechanical problem with an optical solution.

Here’s what I mean: Boeing created what they thought was an amazing plane, with the “greatest flexibility, reliability, and efficiency” on the market. Truth be told, the plane “stretched the 737 design, creating a patchwork plane that left pilots without some safety features that could be important in a crisis (source: NYTimes).” Sounds like a pretty big mechanical problem.

Rather than fix the mechanical problem with actual mechanics, they instead went for optics. Take a look at the webpage for the 737 MAX on Boeing’s own website. The opening line says nothing about what they’re currently doing to fix fatal flaws in mechanics so their planes can be back in the air. Rather, they say how it’s the fastest selling plane in history. Nice optics, but planes can’t fly for long without nice mechanics.

Or take WeWork and their IPO that wasn’t. As it turns out, the optics of “community adjusted EBITDA” don’t overcome the mechanics of actual EBITDA.

And since we in the US are in perpetual state of election cycles, candidate after candidate will try to win the optical game since that seems to be what plays so well in the vicious world of social media and contact-sport like news. Beware the politician who, when asked a mechanical question (about policy or plans) gives an optical answer (how they appear stately or know the right people).

To fix the problem, define the problem

The first step when things aren’t going as well as you like is to determine if you’re facing a mechanical problem or an optical one. Jumping to an optical conclusion is what most of us tend to do because it seems like a quicker or easier fix. Just get out there, come up with some clever tweets or pretty Instagram pictures and then everyone will overlook the blemishes and hiccups.

If a relationship is broken, the way to fix it isn’t with shiny gifts or effusive Instagram pictures (optics). It’s usually through apologies and the rebuilding of trust and boundaries (mechanics). If you want to improve your health, diet alone won’t do it so you appear smaller (optics). You’ve got to get sweating so your resting heart rate lowers along with your blood pressure (mechanics).

Best laid plans

But the best plan is to get your mechanics right from the get go and then just talk about those. If you bake heart, passion, and soul into your products or relationships then you’ll not just have a great “why” at your core, but you’ll have something worth talking about that people will want to listen to. It’s not just the 1’s and 0’s in your app; it’s the purpose that can’t be measured with an algorithm. Heart isn’t just fluffy optics. (How could it be? You can’t even see it.) Heart and soul are all mechanics, baby - mechanics that are fun and meaningful to show others.

But if you don’t define these from the start - embed them in the foundation of your work and relationships - they’ll be nearly impossible to add later. They’re not pretty wallpaper (optics) that covers the cracks in the sheetrock when you’ve actually got a crumbling foundation. Foundations can only be rebuilt by tearing the whole thing down. Better to build on the solid rock of purpose (mechanics) than the shifting sand of popularity (optics).

Work hard on your mechanics. This includes defining the core reason why you do what you do. Then, and only then, work hard on the optics. Your work deserves it.


Do you know of a company or brand that gets both the optics and mechanics right? I’d love to know about them. Drop a comment on this post or shoot me an email. Let’s chat.

Sam DavidsonComment
The struggle is real...necessary

I hit the Seattle airport for the first time last week. Technically it was my second time, but this time I had to spend time in the airport part. Like the terminal. Like where all the people and the McDonalds are.

I expected more. Seattle is supposed to be a hip, eclectic town with a great vibe and flying fish but their airport (at least the terminal I was in) was crowded and cramped with low hung ceilings, mediocre food options and that overall aura that convinces you that you’ll definitely be sick by the time you get home.

I thought to myself, “Are they working on this? What’s the plan?” My home airport - BNA - is in the midst of what seems like a 19-year renovation so I can happily cut an airport some slack if there is a plan. But I noticed no signage or promises emblazoned on banners.

Then I wondered if they’re not fixing it, who could? Enter King Bezos.

airportterm.jpg

We’re in Seattle. Jeff Bezos owns most of this town. Why doesn’t he do something to make the airport better? I mean, he travels a lot I bet. Doesn’t he hate it?

No. Because he doesn’t travel like us. Even if he leaves from SEA, he is dropped planeside and scurries up the stairs to his jet and takes off, never setting foot in any space that resembles a terminal. He no longer has experience with the struggle of commercial air travel. This struggle is not real for him.

More power to him. I used to quasi-separate myself from the hoi polloi who forget you can’t take full bottles of water past a security checkpoint. My annual SkyClub membership was worth every penny. While you’re off trying to find a charger down at gate B8, I’m spread out in the lounge, snacking on cheese, sipping bourbon, a USA Today to my right, a cadre of Diamond Medallion members to my left, my laptop open and connected in front of me. I don’t hear any of the squawking PA reminders about final boarding to Topeka or have to dodge motorized carts. I sit in relative bliss, steps from my gate and plied with the finest crudite and well drinks airport catering can provide.

But now that I don’t travel as much, I see the struggle. Or hey, let’s just call it what it is: reality. Anyone who promises you that life and struggle aren’t synonyms is out of touch at best and probably wants to sell you some crystals out of the back of their van. Protip: Don’t follow them to a second location.

The great solutions and business ideas we all take for granted now happened because someone was struggling.

Sara Blakely started Spanx because she didn’t like the way certain clothes fit and needed shapeware in order to actually rock some pants like she wanted. Walt Disney added theme parks to his repertoire after watching his daughters play at one and wishing it were cleaner and offered activities that were more inclusive for the entire family. Yvon Chouinard wanted climbing pitons that were both sturdy and reusable, so he started making his own and thus Patagonia was born. And I started Batch after taking half a day to run all over Nashville and round up local gifts and mail them to friends in Colorado.

In other words, you can’t start a business from a throne or ivory tower. You can only start a business from the ground up.

Back to Seattle. I finally board my flight, leaving a crowded terminal for a crowded Southwest jet for the long haul back home. So far on my flights westward that week I had the gift of all gifts from the Southwest gods: an empty middle seat. Would their benevolence rain down on me again?

It would not.

Despite my best attempts to look unfriendly and keep my nose buried in my magazine, the shoulder tap and question inevitably came, “Is anyone sitting there?” I rose to let her in.

It was a tight squeeze. She shimmied into our row and plopped down into her seat. Before I could sit back down and finish the article I was reading in the magazine most people only read in public so other people think they’re smart, I had to wait for her to remove her knee brace from the leg currently splayed across my seat. When I sat back down, she fished for her seatbelt, elbows offering no regard for my personal space. When all was calm, there was no escaping it: due to volume, we’d be forearm-to-forearm, flesh-to-flesh for the entire ride.

Midway through she had to go to the bathroom, so I did that most delicate of inflight ballets, unbuckling a seatbelt, returning the tray table to its full upright and locked position, open laptop in one hand, one headphone out, plastic cup clamped between my teeth while I stood and let her pass.

(Do you feel bad for me yet? Or expectant? What great invention will I come up with due to my struggle? Aisle-less planes? Bathrooms in every seat? Stay tuned, only on Sam’s Struggle Show!)

A bit later, a few minutes before landing, I see my seatmate take out a sheet of paper. As a perpetual plane snooper, I sideways glance and see what it is: a prayer request list.

From what I could surmise, she had recently been on some sort of Christian retreat or gathering and one of her takeaways was that she could pray (more) and to honor that, there she was, praying for others struggling while we began our initial descent.

And there was the lesson. We can struggle. And we will. But we can also remind ourselves that others do, too. That’s when we struggle-with. Or struggle-for. And while this may lead to invention or innovation, it really points to a bigger need we have as humans: compassion.

Compassion trumps innovation. The minute we reverse that equation, humanity reverses with it. Innovation is cool, but have you tried compassion yet?

So yeah - the struggle is real. It’s real important. It’s real necessary. We’d do well to embrace it fully. By doing so, we’ll be embracing life itself and may just come up with something that can actually help others, if not ourselves.


If you’ve got a spare minute, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Been inspired by a recent struggle of yours? Been reminded that compassion is a better goal than progress? Or just been in a crappy airport recently? Drop me an email, leave a comment, mail me a letter - you know the drill.

Sam DavidsonComment
Life is so rich

There’s a picture in my home office of me, my wife, and my daughter riding bikes on a trip we look last summer to Paris. If you walked into my house and saw it, you may think that’s our norm - helmet clad, trekking around Nashville daily, packing up the car with our bikes when we travel to visit family or tour the southeast on fall break. 

But you’d be wrong. 

That afternoon in Paris was the first time my wife and I had ridden a bike in five or ten years. We don't even own bikes (my daughter has one but isn’t an avid rider). 

This is the risk of a snapshot - we think it tells us everything but it tells us nothing

I was recently in contention for a job that lasted several rounds of interviews. Having been an entrepreneur for the last 13 years, I was suddenly confronted with the daunting task that confronts many of you regularly: create a resume. 

Being thrust into the dubious task of summing up my professional life in a few sheets of paper was no small challenge - not because I’m supremely accomplished but because bullet points and section headers don’t come close to detailing the stories I could tell, lessons learned, and skills developed from creating four companies, delivering 500+ speeches, serving on nonprofit boards, and consulting business owners. But there I was, confronted with the overwhelming power of a stupid blank sheet of paper.

your-resume-sucks.jpg

I thought back through the last decade plus of work and tried hard to pull snapshots from the recesses of my mind. Quoted in a newspaper here, a revenue milestone there - all of it a vain attempt to cobble together a scrapbook of work. 

After an hour or so of this mental inventory, I abandoned my approach. I ditched the snapshots for a highlight reel. 

You’ve seen the highlight reels that plan on Sportscenter or award shows. Clip after clip gives you a sense of all the highs (rarely the lows) in vivid motion and exciting crescendo, a fuller glimpse into the life and work of a cultural icon. Life is too rich to dilute it down to a handful of still pictures; we were meant to share our highlight reels. 

My resume was soon filled with paragraphs and stories. No; it won’t get past the bots if I apply to gigs posted on large online job boards, but it would do the trick for this opportunity. Most of all it would let me remain true to myself and the fun dynamism that has been my career journey thus far.

Of course, highlight reels can’t be framed and placed on office walls, so this isn’t a wholesale replacement for photography as memory capturer. But it does serve as a reminder for me that when talking about myself or measuring my success (especially in my own head), knowing that my highlight reel of accomplishments is far deeper than the recent snapshot of failure means I won’t judge myself on my latest task. I’ll draw on the deep well of richness that is life itself. 

51IVfcpSYSL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In her book Storycatcher, Christina Baldwin writes:

“I have read the story of a tribe in southern Africa called the Babemba in which a person doing something wrong, something that destroys this delicate social net, brings all work in the village to a halt. The people gather around the "offender," and one by one they begin to recite everything he has done right in his life: every good deed, thoughtful behavior, act of social responsibility. These things have to be true about the person, and spoken honestly, but the time-honored consequence of misbehavior is to appreciate that person back into the better part of himself. The person is given the chance to remember who he is and why he is important to the life of the village.”

I took the title of today’s post from Scott Galloway and his weekly email. Scott is a brilliant thinker and writer (h/t to my friend Rob for shining the light on him for me) who usually riffs on technology or business news (Pivot is a weekly must-listen for me). But, in his weekly newsletter he usually works in a family/personal lesson with whatever business headline he’s breaking down. The combination of the two is summed up nicely in his closing, “Life is so rich, Scott.”

If you’ve failed at something recently, don't frame that snapshot. Know that your highlight reel of accomplishments is bigger than any single act (failure or success) and will tell a deeper, richer story of who you are and what you’re capable of doing in this world. 

And, I’m back. After having taken a long time away from creative work, I’m at a place where I’m itching to share what it is I’m wrestling with, dreaming of, and learning. I’ll share more later about what I’ve been up to during the hiatus, but it’s good to be back. 

Sam Davidson Comment
Who Can You Talk To?

Entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Or at least it shouldn’t. Entrepreneurship happens best out in the open, in community with others, and in the context of deepening relationships with family, friends, advisors, customers, shareholders, employees, and a close inner circle.

In other words, don’t do this alone.

3045915-poster-p-1-how-do-i-get-long-winded-job-candidates-to-stop-talking-during-interviews.jpg

While myriad articles exist talking about the benefits of a solid founding team or helping the entrepreneur find reliable financial or legal help, other partnerships must be developed to ensure long-term success for the entrepreneur and his or her venture.

Here are three critical relationships entrepreneurs must have for success:

1) Someone outside the bubble

When focused on growing a startup, the founder can concentrate on one thing and one thing only: growing the venture. Industry metrics, past performance, business plans, and future markets cloud his or her mind continually, so in order to stay balanced, an entrepreneur needs to have someone in his or her court who doesn’t think about these things as much. Someone like a best friend, a partner, a therapist (even using online therapy), or mentor. Choosing someone who doesn’t live in the trenches means the entrepreneur can wrap his or her head around other concepts from time to time.

2) Someone who’s been there before

Mentorship is underrated. By finding the right mentor, the entrepreneur can save the time and agony of making certain crucial mistakes. The mentor doesn’t have to be in the same sector or industry, but they do have to have accomplished something the entrepreneur wants to: an exit, taking on a competitor, a significant capital raise, solid leadership, or multiple acquisitions or pivots. Setting your sights on finding the right person to show you the ropes means you’ll get down the path much more quickly.

3) Someone who can hear it all

Entrepreneurship comes with stress and headaches (sorry that this journey can’t be all-awesome, all the time). Therefore, in order to stay healthy inside and out, I think entrepreneurs need someone who can hear it all. This can be ranting on a run to a friend or even seeking out and investing in talk therapy. Given an entrepreneur’s busy and unpredictable schedule, resources like Talkspace can be invaluable in restoring sanity or just letting an entrepreneur share what’s happening internally with no fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.

Entrepreneurship is a journey that is long, often unpredictable, and full of challenges. It wasn’t meant to be traversed alone. Go farther and faster by having the right people to talk to.

Sam DavidsonComment
Community to the Table

What do you bring with you? 

To the meeting, to the night out with friends, on a first date, when you travel? What's coming with you?

fullsuitcase.jpg

I bring my community to the table. Whether I'm serving on a nonprofit board, giving a speech, planning a wedding, helping someone network, or selling a client, my community comes with me. My network, my friends, my acquaintances, my family - all of this is in my back pocket to offer in hopes of making everyone better. 

Whether you're aware of it or not, you're bringing something with you everywhere you go, with each interaction. Maybe you're bringing:

  • Your fears
  • Your past
  • Your biases
  • Your optimism
  • Your hidden talents
  • Your pain
  • Your goals
  • Your needs
  • Your agenda
  • Your expertise

The other people in the meeting or at the bar or on the docket are bringing something, too. We're each more than the sum of our parts. Once we get out in the open not just who we are but what we have with us, we'll be amazed at all we can accomplish together.

Showing up empty-handed is impossible.

Sam DavidsonComment
The Hurdle is not the Finish Line

The gun goes off and the runners sprint out of their blocks. After the first 13 meters, they leap into the air over the first hurdle. They'll then do this every 8.5 meters, nine more times. 

But after they cross that last hurdle, they still have 10 and a half meters left until the race is over. The hurdles aren't the point. The finish line is. 

hurdles.jpg

It's easy to get caught up in the enormity and challenge of life's hurdles. We work hard to overcome something, and while that's cause for celebration, resist that urge until you reach the finish line.

Yes, you worked hard on the sales presentation, but the pitch isn't the finish line. Landing the deal is. Passing the midterm was tough, but there's more: graduation. 

Word hard and leap over any hurdle in your path. But by all means, keep your head up until the race is over.

Sam DavidsonComment
More Thoughts on Creativity

Sometimes, creativity is taking what others have done well and building upon it. 

paint-handprint-5153140.jpg

In that vein, here are some longer reads for your longer weekend to get those creative juices flowing. Dive in and let the creative waters wash over you. Here's to hoping you find that creative inspiration somewhere (because you do have to find it; it won't find you while you're idle).

Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm) from Cal Newport

While group activities like brainstorming might be useful for lightweight projects, like coming up with a new slogan for an advertisement, if you’re instead trying to solve an unsolved proof, or, more pressingly, improve ballistic missile defense, there’s no way to avoid learning hard things and then thinking hard about what you learned, hoping to tease out a new connection.

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions from Brain Pickings

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone.

The 10 Qualities of Creative Leaders from Farnam Street

One of the qualities that David Ogilvy looks for in creative leaders? The courage to make tough decisions.

And, here are my thoughts from last week on why you must make time to be creative.

Sam DavidsonComment
Easier or Stronger

When trying to motivate someone (to lead them somewhere, to inspire them), you either need to make something easier for them, or make them stronger in the process.

But these choices don't have equal consequences. 

easy strong.jpg

This is the hard work of parenting - deciding when to make something easy for your child or when to use an opportunity to make her stronger as she grows older. Likewise, it's the choice that leaders must make every day with those in their care. 

Of course, making something easier for someone is the more pleasant route, usually. You can play the hero and savior, the one who comes swooping in to save the day. Who doesn't like things easier, be they homework, office work, or yard work?

This is most true in sales. Will your invention or subscription make things easier for me? Easier to cook breakfast, tend the garden, or balance my household budget? If so, I'm in! 

The harder sell is to convince someone they want to be stronger. Strength only happens when we're challenged or pushed to our limits. That's a place of discomfort, inconvenience, or struggle. A place where things are hard, sweaty, complicated, and confusing. Who's signing up for that?

But, when you emerge from that place, you're better for it. You're stronger, smarter, and more confident. The only byproduct of ease is apathy. Easy and meaningful are opposites, after all. 

Leaders and parents: we have to err on the side of stronger, not the side of easier. We're playing a longer game than the salesperson who is only striving toward that month's quota or that quarter's commission. We're in this for life, and so are our children and employees. We're not converting prospects; we're building people. 

When faced with the choice between easier or stronger, choose stronger. Even if it's not easier, you'll be stronger for it, too.

Sam DavidsonComment
What's Right

Are you doing the right thing? 

Or the thing that's right for you?

There's a big difference, of course. (And only one of those is the choice of leadership.)

IMG_5724.jpg
Sam DavidsonComment
The Alternative

She asked me, "Who's your competition?"

I was speaking with a potential investor and they were doing their due diligence in terms of sizing up the market and our position in it. I wanted to proudly proclaim, "No one!" in order to stake our claim on market dominance and convince her we were a worthy bet. 

choices-min.jpg

Of course, that wasn't true. We all have competition. 

Yes, Wal-Mart competes with Target and Amazon. But they also compete with your savings account, a trip to the beach, or just not getting your friend a birthday present this year.

If you're a realtor, you're not just competing against other realtors. You're also competing with the thought that not moving is the better decision.

Hotels fight against AirBnB, but also crashing on a friend's couch or just driving home after the meeting. The burrito place is up against the pizza place, but it's also up against your grill, that steak marinating in your fridge, and this incredible weather.

Competition isn't just about an alternative product. It's also about an alternative activity. 

We're all competing. Even if you don't think you are.

Sam DavidsonComment
The Creative Hour

Creativity is not feeling. It is an act. And it is not something you do when the time is right. It is something you do. 

Period.

creative.jpg

What could you do in a single hour dedicated to being creative each day? How much effort could you put into your life's work in those 60 minutes?

You could write a blog post. Or three. You could get started on a painting. Or finish one. Design a website. Write a new speech. Perfect your slide deck. Read wise words. Write wise words. Understand a new topic. Take in a fantastic film. Make a fantastic film.

There's no telling what you can do when you carve out time to be creative. 

Go. Steal a creative hour today from your schedule and fill it with your wildest dreams.

(And you do have to steal it. It will not just be handed to you.)

Sam DavidsonComment
What We Say No To

I bought some underwear last month.

My goal last year was to not buy any new clothes. I was looking to save money, and the reality is that I have plenty of clothes already. So my resolution for 2017 was not to spend any money on new clothing.

I did it.

When 2018 rolled around, I was happy with what the prior year's discipline had taught me. I learned to make do with what I already had. I became more resistant in the face of temptation: to grab a souvenir I didn't really need or spend money just because the word "sale" graced an email promotion. 

I finally broke my new clothing fast by buying some underwear at Target, because hey - when you need 'em, you need 'em. But I'm still not back to my old ways of seeking out a deal or filling my closet.

More importantly, I've decided to keep abstaining from certain things. I fast on Mondays now. I've unsubscribed from a lot of e-commerce newsletters. And rarely do I stock my fridge or pantry with sweets or empty calories. 

It certainly matters what you say yes to in life. But take stock of what you say no to as well. What won't stand. What doesn't matter. What shouldn't belong. What you can let go of.

When we say no to the things we don't need, we free ourselves for the things we really want.

Sam DavidsonComment