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A Tribute to Passionate Craftsmanship

I find it so incredibly uplifting to experience people who share their craft with great passion and expertise. I'm talking about the ones who communicate that enthusiasm and knowledge in a very human, engaging, and inclusive manner - none of that bigger-than-life, dry, holier-than-thou posturing to discourage "the rest of us" from enjoying and benefiting from a little piece of their wisdom.

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, I heard about one of these wonderful individuals last Friday in an article about deregulation in the wine industry and how it is dramatically changing the game for producers, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers (see "Wine Sales Thrive As Old Barriers Start to Crumble" in the 8/25/06 WSJ). The very end of the article mentions how this guy named Gary Vaynerchuk hosts an online wine tasting video series, and how Gary describes the "nose" of a $60 bottle of old-growth Tuscan red as being like that of "stinky socks". OK - liking wine, streaming web video, and interesting personalities, I had to check it out.

Man, I'm glad I did. And you should check it out too (http://tv.winelibrary.com/), whether you like wine or not.

Gary hosts a daily (Monday through Friday) video wine tasting Blog. Just watch a clip or two. You can't help but come away with a smile on your face, a nugget or two of interesting new information, and an overall positive feeling (unless I suppose you are the purveyor or owner of that stinky $60 Tuscan red).

That said, there is a lot more to be learned here than just wine tasting technique. Take a close look at how Gary relates to his craft, his audience, and his colleagues (see episode #78 for a good example of the latter). I think it is really something to admire and emulate, regardless of your profession.

I watched several of his episodes over the weekend, and here are just a few things that I really like...

I like how Gary is self-effacing, good-humored, and down-to-earth, yet still extremely capable, confident in his abilities, and certainly no pushover. Check out episode #76. Gary opens the video by passing along the comments from a few disgruntled viewers (you can't please everyone). One detractor characterizes Gary as a dumb "jock tasting wine like it is beer". So here is Gary delivering episode #76 in a bold green New York Jets jersey. A football-clutching Joe Namath grins over Gary's shoulder from a photo mounted in the background. Nice atmosphere for a wine tasting. What a character! In another favorite sequence after Gary tastes a cheap but surpisingly good bottle of wine, Gary leans conspiratorially into the picture, tells the "traditionalists" to hit the pause button, and proceeds to let "the rest of us" know that this wine "ROCKS!". The somewhat more subtle message is that Gary is just like millions of regular folks out there. But that fact doesn't disqualify him - or you and me for that matter - from enjoying the traditionally high-brow world of wine. In fact, despite his just-one-of-the-guys demeanor, Gary knows his wine as well as anyone, and he's not afraid to prove it. "I challenge every single person who sends me negative publicity to a blind tasting and let's see who knows something", he confidently declares leaning into the camera. Yeah, Gary, you tell those stuffed shirts.

I like how the videos allow us to see and experience Gary and his craft in action. It makes the abstract concrete. It allows us to get comfortable with ideas and techniques that, when just read about, remain mysterious and intimidating. A simple example: the spit bucket. I've read about tasting before and how one should spit out the wine after each tasting, but I've never felt comfortable actually trying it myself. Too many nagging questions about what would be considered acceptable technique, how you avoid dribbling on yourself, etc. - the minute details that the written word struggles to capture efficiently. But, there is Gary, in his Jets jersey showing us the way, making us comfortable with the foreign and the potentially awkward, lowering our natural barriers of intimidation. It makes it so much easier and comfortable to translate knowledge into our own application when you can see it clearly in action.

I like how the videos are not overproduced. Someone wrote in a comment on one of his early episodes complaining about the low quality of the "production values". I think that person simply doesn't get it. The lack of overly slick polish and editing is one of the reasons these videos are so engaging. They are real. Gary does not edit out little slip-ups, side comments, or noises from left field on the set. It feels like you are sitting down one-on-one with Gary and having a conversation across his desk. It is all very accessible and human. Just the right amount of professionalism and production to effectively present the message without obscuring the real content, the real person, the real experience. No super-fancy set, no slick lead-ins, no distracting music - just Gary, the wine, his passion, and the tasting process.

I like how Gary is fallible. He is clearly an expert, but he makes mistakes and is candid about owning up to them (like when he readily admits in episode #79 that he bungled some of his tasting in the prior episode due to his less than perfect state of mind after the emotional passing of a close colleague and friend). I don't think that detracts from his expertise - it makes him more human, more credible, more accessible. It is a good reminder for all of us to have the confidence to know that openly acknowledging a mistake does not necessarily undermine our expertise or our authority.

I like how Gary doesn't engage in any overt hard-selling techniques. Yes, he is in the wine business and makes money selling the wines he discusses in his videos, but that doesn't keep him from giving an honest opinion about an expensive wine that he thinks fails to cut the mustard; or, on the flip side, singing the praises of a $7 steal. The focus is all on imparting knowledge about his craft and creating a lasting bond with fellow enthusiasts - not just selling bottles of wine to random customers one transaction at a time. Oddly enough, according to the WSJ article, even the wines he pans end up selling. I'm guessing that's because folks want to see if they can replicate his analysis - taste those "stinky socks" just like Gary did. It's as much about the process as it is about the end result. To date, I have not bought a single product from the Wine Library, but I'm sure that I will someday, if for no other reason than the fact that I admire Gary and enjoy the experience he is sharing. To me, that's just good business - no hard-sell needed.

The bottom line in all of this for me: If you develop a deep expertise in a craft that you absolutely love, and if you share that craft with others in a passionate, creative, fun, and human way, you simply can't go wrong in business and in life.


Skip-Generation Connections

A recent (Friday, August 18th) letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. The letter was a reaction to an earlier (August 1st) editorial that characterized America is an "insanely child-centered country". The reaction carefully - and correctly, in my opinion - pointed out the distinction between doting on children and connecting with them. One should not confuse the two. As per the original editorial, we need to be less child-centered when it comes to the doting angle, but, as per the subsequent letter to the editor, we need to be more child-centered when it comes to creating meaningful intergenerational connections. The letter to the editor goes on to cite a plethora of research corroborating the importance of meaningful intergenerational relationships in stemming the onslaught of high risk behavior in kids (substance abuse, violence, anti-social behavior, academic failure, etc.). Makes perfect sense.

This exchange in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of a class of intergenerational relationship that I think is of particular value: the "skip-generation" relationship. The relationship between a grandson and a grandfather is a typical (but by no means the only) example. In my own experience, I have found that even the most subtle and brief skip-generation connections can leave incredibly profound, lasting impressions. Impressions that help reinforce and shape subsequent lifetimes of beliefs and behaviors.

For example, my two grandfathers left very lasting impressions on me, despite the fact that we spent relatively little time together. It would be quite an ambitious project to do sufficient justice to those deep impressions here, so instead of attempting to articulate them in detail, I will just engage in a very brief free-association and share a few photos in hopes that they might convey at least a flavor of what was passed along.

Grandpa Herb (my paternal grandfather): firm handshake, eye contact, the gentle sing-song "hellooOOoooOOooo"; respectful, humble, straightforward, simple, clean, meticulous, practical, athletic; organized toolbox, handy pocketknife, sturdy monogrammed HMD bar glasses, Stanford University.

Grandpa Herb at my wedding in 1984.

"Buddie" (my maternal grandfather): the name says it all, ready chuckle, twinkling eyes, arrowheads, stetson hat, bolo tie, aromatic cigar, the ranch, the land, my mother's beloved "Daddy" (that's her hand on his shoulder below).

Buddie, circa 1954.
My brother, Buddie, and me. One of my all-time favorite photos.
Skip-generation keepsakes - wonderful everyday reminders through which the connections live on.

As parents, I think we have a responsibility to facilitate these connections without trying to artificially shape them - to create the opportunities without trying to guide the outcomes.

I am also convinced that technology can play a positive role in facilitating meaningful everyday skip-generation connections. Email, online photo sharing, streaming audio/video and all kinds of other emerging technologies present intriguing new opportunities to forge meaningful connections and break down traditional barriers of geography and time.

That reminds me, I need to upload those photos of my son's birthday this weekend so the grandparents can check them out. Should spark a conversation or two...

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Alienware, Assumptions, and Math

Blindly relying on basic assumptions can be costly and embarrassing. It's generally a good idea to do a quick reality check (often prompted by an unbiased partner) and "do the math" (a quick running of the basic numbers involved) before pulling the trigger on an important decision (say, like starting your own business).

I was reminded of this simple fact last night. My boys are heavily into online gaming, and the PC I bought a couple of years back just hasn't been cutting the mustard performance-wise. The boys have been eyeing some of the tricked-out (and pricey) machines from Alienware for some time now, so we finally got down to ordering one online last night. After a couple of hours of cajoling the "unbiased partner" (my wife), we seemed to have finally won the war of attrition and successfully paried her various and sundry objections to getting one of these awesome looking (or "hideous looking", depending upon your unbiased viewpoint) ultimate gaming machines.

So we excitedly made our way through the online configuration and ordering process. Our enthusiasm mounted with each selected option: Color - "Conspiracy Blue - Cool!"; Memory - "Let's go for 2 Gig - Live it up!"; Disk drive - "Extreme performance with dual 250 Gig drives - Yeah, bring it on!"; Graphics processor - "Gotta have the latest SLI enabled NVIDIA GeForce card - it's all about the graphics, sheesh!"; and so on... We were nanoseconds away from the Place Order button now, and in just a few pounding heartbeats one of these awesome beasts would be custom assembled and careening towards our house!

"How big is it?"


"How big is it?" the sleepy, unbiased voice repeats, piercing through our euphoric buying haze.

"It's about the same size as our current desktop PC - these things are generally all about the same size and I've seen the pictures on the Web site," I say authoritatively and dismissively all at the same time (a genetic male talent that comes effortlessly). The Place Order button beckons on the screen.

"Have you looked up the size? Have you measured the space on the computer desk?"

The boys and I give our best collective eyeball roll. I can see she isn't going to let this one go. OK, let's humor her and get on with it. Man, what a buzz killer! I click on the Back button to hunt down the page with the complete Technical Specifications.

Height: 19.01"
Width: 9.97"
Depth: 25.02"

Doh!!! Over two feet deep!! What is that, a typo?! That's almost twice the size of our current desktop - already a monster as far as we're concerned - and deeper than the desktop space itself. I thought computers were getting smaller, not larger!

The buzz was dead. We should have checked the size of this thing before getting all amped up. The wife/Mom was right. Man, I hate that. But, hey, better to eat a little humble pie now than to drop a few grand on a machine only to find out later that it doesn't even fit. That would have been a real let-down, not to mention a daily embarrassing reminder of my dismissive reliance on basic assumptions.

Which reminds me: I need to double-check some of the basic assumptions and math around my new venture. Take a fresh run through my initial revenue and expense calculations (there is a useful Cash Management planning spreadsheet on StartupNation that I have been using). Possibly rethink some of my marketing assumptions. For example, since my venture might be considered in some ways to be the antithesis of MySpace (I mentioned in my first post that the central concept "revolves around encouraging responsible, philanthropic behavior in families and their children"), I've been looking at top-down marketing strategies that target "responsible" parents. Perhaps I need to look at some bottom-up marketing strategies as well. An article in the San Jose Mercury today (Going Ape Over MySpace: Silicon Valley Start-Ups Try to Ride Web Sensation's Coattails) prodded me to think that perhaps I can even tap into the momentum and reach of MySpace to promote my venture, even though it targets a very different kind of behavior. Maybe - at least I should not be too quick to dismiss the idea.

Oh yeah, and about that Alienware purchase? It turns out they make a pretty awesome laptop as well. I had dismissed it before, because everyone knows a desktop is the optimal choice for gaming - right? Wrong in this case. The laptop has all the cool options we wanted above - except for the color - and, it will fit perfectly on our computer desk. The buzz is back, the order is placed. Humiliation-free gaming bliss should be ours in just a few days...


Home Office Version 0.1

My first significant capital purchase arrived on the doorstep today - a fresh new 15" Dell laptop along with a 19" monitor. I'll be using the two side-by-side for extra screen real estate. I'm not sure whether it will make me twice as productive, but it sure is nice for keeping several windows open at once.

Consider Home Office version 0.1 officially launched!

Now, all I need to do is erect a barricade to keep the wife and kids from running in here every 10 minutes. Just kidding - they are a delight - and are actually providing a lot of valuable suggestions and discriminating feedback on the business. It is really cool to have the whole family collaborating on the venture - a great learning experience for everyone. Nonetheless, we're all still adjusting to the novelty of Dad being around the house during the work week (something I've never done in 22 years of professional life).

Now, when is that first day of school again?


DonorsChoose.com: A Neat, Convenient Way to Introduce Kids (and Others) to Philanthropy

In my last post, I spoke briefly about my interest in engaging children in philanthropy - the earlier the better. Of course, there are many effective ways to do this, but one that I find particularly intriguing given my interest in the Internet and online marketplaces is a site called DonorsChoose. Quoting from their homepage, the nutshell summary is: "Here, teachers submit ideas for materials or experiences that their students need to learn. Individuals like you can choose a project and make it a classroom reality." Really cool - a philanthropic online marketplace that matches teachers with donors to fulfill a wide variety of educational needs that would otherwise probably go unfunded.

I first heard about DonorsChoose last year when I spoke on a panel at a Kleiner Perkins venture capital event. In return for speaking, KP gave each of the panelists a coupon to DonorsChoose that could be used to fund (or partially fund) a project of our choosing. Since my own children are very involved in music and I have become very passionate about supporting programs in that area, I selected a project entitled "Piano Keyboard for Our Classroom". A kindergarten teacher in a predominantly low income school district of San Jose, California with no money for drama, art, gym or music instructors, was seeking donations to fund a digital keyboard to use in his classroom. You can view the original project proposal here. I used the KP coupon to fund a portion of the $420 request.

I was very impressed with how easy, smooth, and gratifying the whole process was. A few months later, I received a hand-written "thank-you" note from the teacher describing the impact in the classroom. Included in the thank-you packet was a set of photos showing various students playing on the new keyboard in the classroom - fantastic!

This struck me as a very simple and meaningful way to start engaging your children in philanthropy. A way that allows them to perform their own research, use their own funds, make their own decisions, and see a very tangible, near term impact.

Here's a thought: the next time you feel the need to give your child a project (they're bored, spending too much time in front of SpongeBob, too wrapped up in themselves, etc.), try the following (assuming you have set up your own account on www.donorschoose.com):

  • Show them the site and the basics of how to get around
  • Tell them to search for and make a list of 5-10 projects that they think are particularly meaningful to them (I prefer this to choosing just one - it overcomes the initial temptation to hastily pick any old one without getting engaged and forces a deeper critical evaluation).
  • Have them sort the list from "least deserving" to "most deserving" with an explicit comment about why each is more deserving than its predecessor in their opinion (of course, they are all likely to be "deserving" projects - the point is to get them to think more deeply about what they want to donate to and why).
  • After some discussion, fund the chosen project (or typically a portion thereof). Ideally, the funds would come from the child (perhaps built up in a "philanthropy account" over time by deducting a percentage of weekly allowance - you might consider matching contributions as well).

See how it goes - I'm trying this myself now.

I'm hoping to be able to create some linkage between my new venture and DonorsChoose or sites like it. We'll see if that pans out. If you know of similar sites, feel free to leave a comment - I'd be interested to hear about them.

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Day One On My Own

I shot my mouth off last week and told a few folks that I would blog about my experiences starting a new venture from scratch, so here I am to see if I can follow through on that promise...

And, yes, it is 4:30 in the morning of "Day One" as I sit down to write this first entry. After staring at the ceiling for the last hour plus, I figured I might as well sneak downstairs and do something productive. Difficulty sleeping is, thankfully, not something I have experienced much of in my life, so I'm hoping it will remain a rarity (due to an ill-timed late afternoon Grande Iced Latte perhaps) as opposed to a regular artifact of the anxiety of venturing out on my own. We'll see...

Anyway, let's start with a brief background: yesterday was my last day as Vice President of Technology and Services at Elance after officially resigning last Monday (July 31). I joined Elance over 2 years ago in November of 2003. Despite my resignation, let me be very, very clear that I think Elance is an absolutely brilliant and timely concept. In a nutshell, it is a global online markeplace for services. Service providers (such as graphic artists, software developers, writers, etc.) bid on projects (e.g., "Design my company logo", "Build an e-commerce Web site", "Write a company newsletter", etc.) that are posted by buyers (typically small business owners, ummm - like me!). I won't go into a lot of detail here now, but suffice it to say, it is an incredibly cost-effective way to access a broad array of skills and talent. I have used Elance often for a variety of projects related to some of my extra-curricular activities (like Pepperwood Preserve and WillToons), and I am certain I will be using it heavily for my new venture. I'll talk about it more as I do...

Let me also say that I will miss working day-to-day with many great friends at Elance. I wish you all the greatest success.

So, now perhaps you are thinking: "If Elance is such a great idea and such a promising opportunity with such great people, then why in the heck did you leave?" Well, that is a really, really, really excellent question. (Perhaps that nagging question has something to do with my being up in the middle of the night!) Some of the detail is fairly personal, and I'm not a big fan of blathering on about personal stuff on the public Internet, so I'll leave most of that for private conversation. The key thing is that, for a variety of reasons, I felt the time was right to go out and see if I could accomplish something I have wanted to do for quite some time: to build a meaningful software-related company from scratch. I think I have all the necessary skills, ideas, and passion to pull it off, so, at 43 years of age, it is pretty much time to put up or shut up as they say. Time to take some risk. Besides, as Lorenzo at Elance gently pointed out to me last week, I'm currently being outdone on the entrepreneur front by my 11 year old son (see WillToons), so I definitely think it is time to take action before my brain and my programming skills completely atrophy.

Is this a mid-life crisis? I don't know - maybe. But it seems all good to me. It is very invigorating to break out on my own and force myself out of my comfort zone. After just a few hours on the new job, I've already learned a number of new things (BTW cool site recommendation: StartupNation) and I am sure it is just the very tip of the iceberg. I figure, at minimum, I'll emerge from this wiser than when I entered. Also, since the central concept behind my new venture revolves around encouraging responsible, philanthropic behavior in families and their children, I feel confident that I can make a positive impact on the planet. At minimum, that impact will be felt within my own family (a captive audience with no opt-out chance); at maximum, who knows - we'll see as this unfolds...

Well, it's 6am now (time flies!) and the house is actually starting to stir as the cell-phone alarms go off for an early Saturday AM activity...

So, in closing on my first post, as I told the family last week, the good news is that I am now President and CEO - quite the bigshot; the bad news is that I am President and CEO of nothing and nobody. Oh well, it still feels good to be in charge ;-)