Category Archives: True Stories

True Story: A Fast Growing Company Gets Organized

This is a true story.

Once upon a time, I had an interesting problem, the kind most small business owners want to have, but nonetheless, still a problem. We were growing too fast. Our sales tripled one year, and doubled the next.

We didn’t want to stunt our growth. But we were having trouble getting everything done. We’d outgrown the management style of a dozen or so people doing what needed done, pretty much like mice gathered around a piece of cheese, eating away where they could. Not that we didn’t have jobs and functions; we did. We divided ourselves into web programming, customer service, admin, marketing, and product development. But even so, lines kept crossing and the mice-and-cheese style wasn’t working.

We took half a day. First, we brainstormed a list of tasks. These were the things that had to get done. We mixed different time frames, long term and short term, and different functions. Phones had to be answered, books had to be kept, and so on.

Then we organized the tasks into logical groups. We came up with tracking and measurement for most of the main tasks, and, more important, we agreed on who was responsible. We discovered some overlaps, like the customer service people were just a short step away from entering customer data during a call. And the sales people were close to completing a regular customer survey. We put it all up on a white board and talked about commitment and responsibility, compared to involvement. In the classic bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. We wanted commitment. We ended up with teams, and committed team leaders.

That half-day reorganization became a new component of our ongoing business plan. It took us past the first big management hump, around 15 people, and got us all the way to the next one, which was about 30 people.

Not all problems were solved. Metrics, accountability, and tracking were critical components of ongoing management. Still, by the end of the day, we were way more organized than we’d been.

True Story of a Natural Networker

Coincidence or synchronicity: two days ago I had a heart-to-heart talk with somebody about partners in business, and the natural networker concept came up in reference to a specific person I know. We were talking about partners and complimentary skill sets. He does what I never could. I’m not going to give you his name, but I call him Ralph.

This story started in the 1970s before “networking” was a word that any of us used. Even in college, Ralph was a natural friend, somebody who liked other people and was always ready to do somebody else a favor, when he could.

Ralph was never subservient, but he was always helpful. That was in his bones, as pure instinct. He was the archetypical nice guy. Everybody who knew him liked him. And because he did favors, he got them back. He was also smart and he was a hard worker.

What’s important to me is that this wasn’t Networking like we talk of it now, as a business tool, a set of tasks, something you’re supposed to be doing to succeed. It was just being a nice guy, and helping others when he could. It was never contrived. It was never thought out. At least, I’m pretty sure … and maybe almost never.

But when there were problems in the large company he worked for, and Ralph was set up to be the scapegoat, he didn’t get fired. He had too many people in the company speaking up for him. I saw that happen twice. He hadn’t failed or performed poorly, but it was a large company, and if it weren’t Ralph, he would have had to take the hit. He didn’t.

And when he needed help from somebody, he didn’t mind asking, and they were generally happy to help because that was returning favors he’d already done.

I always admired that natural instinct. It’s a good way to be. Good vibe, as we used to call it; good karma, if you like that word; and good business. I was never so outgoing, but at least I had the sense to respect somebody who was.  And still is – we’re still friends, 30 years later.

Do You Know The Luxury of Not Having to Know Everything?

Never underestimate the luxury of being able to not know something.

For example, you’re in a business meeting and somebody asks about some acronym you’ve never heard of. The right answer is:

I don’t know what that acronym means. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it before. Maybe you can tell me, or give me some context?

Too often, though, people think something they don’t know is something they are supposed to know. So they fake it. They work around it, pretend to know, guess, or stumble.

I learned years after getting an MBA degree that one of the unexpected benefits was the luxury of not knowing something. Which leads to the luxury of being able to just ask. “I don’t know” is very freeing.

tour busHere’s another way of explaining it. When I was young I guided two around-the-world groups for a travel agency.

The first time around, I feared having one of the tourists ask me something I didn’t know. I was supposed to have been to these places before, and with most of them, I hadn’t. And that was nerve wracking. There are about 50 churches between the airport and the hotel in any European city. People would start asking names of churches as soon as we got off the highway into town. And I didn’t know.

The second time around, when we’d go through the neighborhoods towards the hotel , I had the luxury of saying “I don’t know” when I was asked about some random church along the way. “It’s not one of the major ones,” I would add, knowing at least that it wasn’t on the tour.

I was reminded of this last week when I read a good post called 5 Surprising Traits Of Successful Entrepreneurs by Adelaide Lancaster on Huffington Post. Number one on that list is:

Ability to admit (comfortably and openly) what they don’t know.

Amen to that. Occasionally I run into one of those people who seems pressured to know everything. They can never just exhale and not know. I’m sure that’s a hard way to live.

(Image: lierne via Flickr CC)

Do You Underestimate The Tasks You Like?

I’m sure I do this and I’m wondering whether you think everybody does. When I’m asked to estimate how much time some task is going to take:

  • If it’s something I enjoy doing, like writing, or programming, or driving  on an open road, my estimate is always too low.
  • If it’s something I don’t enjoy, like chores, or long meetings, or driving through city traffic, then my estimate is always too high.

I’m serious. Back in the 1990s when I was actually programming real software product – I did a third of the code in the first Business Plan Pro – my estimates of the time things would take were terrible. Even today, when I’m mostly writing, the time I actually take doing this blog post, to name one example, is about three times more than what I would have thought when I started it.

And that’s a business problem, not just a random thought.  Coordinating and collaborating requires managing time estimates. How do you coordinate marketing implementation and launch, for example, if time estimates are wrong?

It was hell on me when I was getting any of my books finished. It was so much more fun to imagine them, outline and highlights and all, think about them, than to actually write all those words.

I tried to double or triple my own estimates for my own work, but that didn’t work very well either, because every so often I’d get really psyched on a job, get into a zone, and finish it as quickly as I originally thought I would.

So I have no solution to this problem. Maybe it’s a good thing to have jobs you like as much as I’ve liked some of mine. But it’s hard to deal with. Do you have a solution?

(Image: Enrico Fianchini/istockphoto)

An Old Man to Admire

He might be the man I most admire. He is certainly that among the men I’ve actually known. And he’s a model for us all. Frank D. Berry

My dad, Frank D. Berry, MD, turned 91 last Fall. His four children are in their 60s and 50s. He still plays tennis twice a week, and golf on occasion, and he’s on the web every day, watching the business news, political news, discussions, ideas, and the world. He voted for Goldwater and Reagan as a middle-aged conservative, and for Gore and Obama as an older liberal. He’s always had the ability to change his mind. He put up with me being a hippie in the 60s when he was a conservative. He puts up with my brothers being conservatives, now that he’s a liberal.

He hasn’t lost his razor-sharp wit or his intellect, but he’s lost his quick reflexes, and most of his hearing (except on the phone), so he compromises with his limitations. He plays triples in tennis instead of doubles when he can, because he hits everything that he can reach, but he can’t reach like he used to. He settles for shooting in the high 40s for nine holes now, even though he used to shoot 70-something for 18. He drives a steel blue mini-cooper when he drives, but he doesn’t drive much any more, just back and forth from his home — the same one I grew up in, and I’m 63 — to the club, and to the corner store, and sometimes the video store.

He never smoked. He has always — except on nights before surgery — had a drink or two before dinner. He has never stopped getting regular exercise.

My dad has been a quiet hero for a lot of different people at different times. At the height of his career as an Ophthalmologist, History of El Camino Hospital, Mt. View, CApeople flew from all over the west, up from Los Angeles and down from Seattle, to have him do their eye surgery at El Camino Hospital in Mt. View, California. He was one of the first in his generation to do lens transplants. He was the first chairman of the first committee to create El Camino Hospital.

He was a straight-A student who went from a small mill town named Milford, in Massachusetts, to Holy Cross and then Tufts medical school. 1944Captain Frank BerryHe was also the starting guard in high-school basketball (he scored 32 points in one game), and second baseman on the AAU team that won the state championship in Fenway Park. That was back in the middle 1930s when baseball was the national sport and the state championship put little Milford on the map. He was an army doctor during World War II.

He quit his medical practice at 65 to care for my mother, then his wife of 43 years, who died of cancer when he was 69. And now he’s caring for Liz, his wife of 22 years, now 87, struggling with the skeletal effects of aging. He was 70 when they married, and she was 66. We thought it was one of those December romances because they met a few months after their respective spouses had died. If so, that December’s been a long one.

My dad is the model of teaching by example. He’s always given his best at whatever he does. He loves competition, but he honors winning with quiet dignity and losing with grace. He’s never booed an opposing team, and he’s never lost a game on purpose, because that would disrespect the opponent. He tells the truth, he listens extremely well, and — only if you ask him to — he tells you exactly what he thinks. He made his own career out of skill and intelligence, and when he could, as he gained stature, he focused on the parts of Ophthalmology that he liked — the surgery — and left the rest for other doctors.

Today, on Father’s Day, I’m thinking about an important lesson my dad has to teach me and every father.

He has always given advice the way everybody should. His advice has no baggage. You take it, or not, and he’s okay with simply having shared what he thought was best. He gives it truly like a gift, meaning that once given, it’s yours, not his, and there’s no hard feelings about what you do with it. I love that. I wish I’d always done that as well as he has.

True Story: Twitter, Business, An Introvert Looking Out

The other day I read Can Twitter Rescue Introverted Students? in the Education section of It reminded me of what Twitter has done for me in business. This is a true story.

I believe in the essential truth the Jungian personality types and I’ve tested myself several times. I always test close to the border between introvert and extrovert, but I keep switching. It seems like if I test myself during a time that I’m doing a lot of workshops and speaking, I come out slightly extrovert. If I test myself during a time that I’m doing mostly writing, alone, I come out introvert.

This wavering explains how I can be a loser at a cocktail party and a ham when I’ve got a microphone and an audience. It explains how I can be clumsy at networking when it means asking favors of people I’ve failed to keep up with, but not so bad when networking is about doing favors and keeping up with friends. And it explains how I could start and grow my own business business, but like the writing and programming part of it way more than the meetings and management part of it.

And then I discovered Twitter. If it really were a giant cocktail party with strangers, I’d hate it. But no; from the outside in, it’s a giant window to a world of people offering information, advice, opinions, and good links. And from the inside out, it’s a microphone for information, advice, opinions and good links. And I love it. In the illustration, you see a random shot of my Tweetdeck view of Twitter, which sits on one of my two monitors, always, when I’m in my office.

Now I meet people not as strangers but as fellow authors and publishers, because Twitter is publishing, not talking. And I get to know them easily through what they offer in 140-character pieces to the rest of the world. And the special reward is now I often get to meet them in person, or on the phone first and then in person, but it’s no longer like a cocktail party meeting strangers; it’s meeting a friend who is already a friend.

It’s fascinating. It’s fun. And it’s great for business, at least for my business, which is a lot about business planning, small business management, and entrepreneurship. My Twitter self has been recommended by the New York Times, Business Week, Business Insider, and others. And if you’re reading this (thanks for that, by the way) then the odds are the networking effects of social media helped you find it.

Fun, interesting, and good for business? That’s a good combination.

Stage Fright Can Be Good For Your Career

I’ve noticed a pattern with myself, public speaking, and fear of speaking. I wonder if this holds true with others. Tim speaking

I think it was good for me that my job required a lot of speaking even when I was still pretty young. Before I was 25 I’d done radio and standup television for UPI out of Mexico City. When I was in my 30s I did workshops and speaking dates at trade shows like Comdex. And I’ve been doing business planning and startup workshops, and teaching, and some large-group speaking ever since.

For many years, certainly for most of my career, there was a strong correlation between nervousness and doing well. Strange, I suppose, but true: the more nervous I got beforehand, the better I did. When I’d be tossing and turning all of the night before my talk, or had that embarrassing dry mouth and shaking hands at the beginning of a talk, I’d end up doing better.

Confidence seemed to be a bad sign. For years, for most of my career, if I was cool and calm then my performance was not as good.

The extreme nervousness went away, finally, worn off I guess from years of it I’d had by the time I reached maybe 50 years old. But even now, with the big groups, the 1,000-seat auditoriums, I still get nervous and shaky, and the stage fright tends to make me perform (as far as I can tell) better, not worse.

In the end, I think the best way to get over this fear of speaking is to just do it, over and over again.

(Image: courtesy of

Why Did I Start A Business? Not Why You Think

I was talking to a group of students recently and I was asked to comment on what makes an entrepreneur. The student who asked the question wrapped it in the mythology of the entrepreneur driven by the idea, stubbornly, tirelessly proving its value to the world. She wanted me to tell about me wanting to build something big.

But I had to admit that my case was different. I was running away from boredom, not building castles.sandcastle

When I left a good job at Creative Strategies and started on my own, in truth it was not because of something I wanted to build, not because of a creative vision, but rather because I thought I could make enough money to keep my family whole and do what I wanted. I wanted interesting work, and I wanted to choose my work. I wanted to actually do the writing and research, not supervise others. It was important to me that what I spend hours doing was something fun — I always found writing and planning and working numbers fun — even though I didn’t have the idea that would create the empire.

Or maybe you like this shorter version: I was married, had kids, so we needed the money; and nobody else would pay me what I needed to make.

And the idea of a software product, that creative vision? Yes, that happened, but that came about 10 years later.

(Image: sandyfeet/Flickr cc)

Memorial Day, Draft Lottery, Reality TV, Flags

(This was first posted here three years ago.)

I woke up yesterday in Portland (OR), in a condo near the top of W. Burnside. The area has a series of cemeteries, dark green rolling hills, breaking up the otherwise thickly forested landscape. It had rained all night, so there was a thick mist cushioning the quiet hills. It was early Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, not a lot of cars around, very quiet. Through the mist I could see the U.S. flags dotting the graves on the hills. Random patterns. A lot of the graves have flags today.

Later in the day we drove by, commented on the flags. How many from this century, Afghanistan, Iraq? Hard to tell. They’d be so young, somebody said.

Whether they died in 1943, or 1969, or 2007, they were all so young.

Switch to reality television. 1969. The draft lottery. They put the 366 possible days of the year in transparent plastic eggs, one each for each possible birthday. The put them all into a giant transparent barrel like we see in lotteries these days. They spun the wheel. They drew a date. Those of us born on that date got a number.

My number was 243. I didn’t get drafted. I didn’t go to Vietnam.

By 1969, most of us opposed the Vietnam war. We talked about what we’d do if drafted. Al became a conscientious objector, emptied bedpans for two years. I was engaged to be married, but that was not going to get me out of the war. But a January birth date did.

It turned out later that somebody did a statistical analysis on the draft lottery and the dates. They started on January 1 and threw them in from there day-by-day to December 31. The later birthdays tended to be on top. Or so I read later.

But we didn’t oppose the people, our peers, who fought. Whether it was their choice, or not.

Few in my generation chose to go to war. One who did, who graduated with me from Notre Dame, chose ROTC. Traveling around Europe, he collected military paraphernalia. His father was in the army. His grandfather had been in the army. He volunteered to be a helicopter pilot, and he died in Vietnam. In his helicopter. We weren’t that close, I heard about it later. My memories of him are of a 20-year-old kid having a wonderful time during a year in college abroad, laughing, drinking Austrian beer, learning; as alive as any memory could be. What a terrible loss.

Memorial Day, patriotism, flags, wars. Protests, anti-war, opposition. Memorial Day isn’t about war, or politics, or patriotism, or whatever might be the opposite of patriotism. It’s definitely not about flags. It’s about young people who died, and the people left behind who loved them. And all the people who endured it, risked their lives, went through the hell of it, for whatever reasons.

I lucked out. I won the reality TV of the last half century, the 1969 draft lottery. And I thank God for that. And honor and respect the ones who went, for whatever reasons. And hope that we can end the present war without causing chaos, and more death and suffering; and that we never fight another war again.

True Story: Not My Problem

This is a true story that might apply to your business. You decide.

We landed in a hot and smoggy Rome airport after three flights that took all night. We were packed to the gills for a three-week trip including sightseeing, cruise, beach, and a family wedding, for not just us but our daughter and son-in-law and grandson. We’d managed to go through the passport check, find our luggage, get through customs, and, finally, after maybe an hour in the airport, jet lagged and exhausted, we found the right place to pick up the taxis we’d

And of course we had reserved taxis in advance, through the concierge in the hotel we’d reserved in advance. We knew we were going to be in bad state at this point.

Finally we found one driver who had our name and was waiting for us. At last. Between our Spanish and English and his Italian we asked him where the other driver was. Over and over, the same basic question: “Where is the other driver?”

Time passed as we struggled with the language. Frustration — his and ours — grew. He failed to understand our question and we failed to explain what we needed. It got hotter and smoggier.

Then suddenly his face brightened. He flashed us a huge smile, full of visible relief. He pointed upwards with his right index finger. Then he very carefully composed his answer to us, in three words, each pronounced carefully, one by one, in English:

Not my problem.

And that was that.

Business lesson? Maybe.

The rest of the story? No big deal. The ones with the baby drove with him and the rest of us went to the end of the taxi line and waited obediently for a taxi in the queue.