“The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” – Plato
I want to tell you a story. It’s the story of my life. Well, not the whole story—I’ll spare you the typical biographical details of when I was born and how old I was when I first learned to ride a bike. Instead, I want to focus on the story of my life as a corporate executive, team leader, and entrepreneur.
Now before you shake your head, roll your eyes, and ask, “Why does Paul think I need to know this?” let me preface by saying that I believe everyone has something to share, his or her “lessons learned” from a lifetime of experience.
In my case, as a corporate executive, an entrepreneur, and an experienced team leader and motivator, I have walked in your shoes. I have faced the same challenges, obstacles, and opportunities. I’ve worried, stressed out, and felt the exhilaration of success and the satisfaction that comes with a job well done. I’ve won some and I’ve lost some, and I have persevered when the going’s been tough.
I’m not a celebrity. I’m not a Washington powerbroker. I’ve never dated a member of the Kardashian family. And I haven’t invented some worldwide phenomenon like the Rubik’s cube or life-changing technology like the iPhone or the Heart-Lung machine. I’m not even that old—though my back and knees might beg to differ some mornings—so I don’t have an octogenarian’s worth of wisdom to share, at least not yet.
But I do believe that EVERYONE has a story, just as every one of us has the potential for success. I know this. I believe this. So if you can benefit from my story, if you can glean one little kernel of insight that otherwise might have slipped by, that makes it well worth the telling.
MY FIRST, BEST DESTINY
The hardest part of telling my story was deciding where to begin, what to include, and what not to include.
- What will those hearing or reading it find most compelling?
- Moreover, will they find anything compelling or even remotely interesting?
- What’s the leave behind, the takeaway, or the moral (if there is one)?
I was born to be an entrepreneur. In hindsight, I now see that’s a given.
People who know me well, know that being an entrepreneur is in my blood. It’s who I am. I like the pursuit of turning nothing into something, of turning ideas for products and services into something others will want to buy, of getting people and teams motivated and working together. It’s what energizes me and gets my creative juices flowing.
But I wasn’t always working for myself. Back in late 2007, just as the “Great Recession” was about to hit, I was the first hire of an equity firm that had just purchased a multi-million dollar manufacturer and marketer of protection products for gamers. As the new Vice President of Product Development, my task was to head up product development, purchasing, and sourcing.
My first challenge was to develop company values and define a mission that would lead us into the future. The company’s old regime had left a negative, nasty taste with employees, so what it needed immediately was a “makeover” in its corporate culture, top to bottom.
This was no short order. I had few resources to hire new people or implement what I felt were much-needed changes in our systems and processes. We couldn’t even raise our prices because the market simply could not bear it. The reality was that I was operating on such a shoestring budget that if anyone member of the staff were to leave, it would have been catastrophic.
It was clear I had to make do with what I had—to turn the lemons I’d been given into lemonade (for more thoughts on turning lemons into lemonade, read this blog from the Monkeyz archives).
TURNING LEMONS INTO LEMONADE
I’m not exaggerating when I say this was an exciting time to lead. It was scary, too, and fraught with uncertainty, but mostly it was exciting. I learned what it takes to keep people engaged and motivated, and—shocker!—it’s not just about the money. Sure, getting paid for the work you do is critical, but so too is liking your coworkers, feeling part of a team with common goals, and having a “can-do” (vs. a “can’t-do”) attitude.
While many of the other executives in the company were certain the recession wouldn’t last and were pushing to raise prices to alleviate our budget woes (which most likely would have resulted in a downturn in sales), my team and I quickly became the company’s leading “change agents.” We could have complained. We could have adopted the fatalist’s attitude of “what’s the point?” But we didn’t. We chose to push through it and do the best we could with what we had. It was time to begin tearing down all those walls that had been built over the years at this company through fear and spite.
My makeover plan was simple. I wanted to create an atmosphere of comradery, teamwork, trust, accountability, and open communication. We held regular meetings, learned and implemented project management tools, engaged in brainstorming sessions, held company picnics, set up a company game room, got our vendors involved in team meetings, and even painted a few walls!
By design, most of the changes were simple—all the stuff a good human resources department might do—but they went a long way toward improving the atmosphere in the place, boosting morale, and improving the company’s overall “mojo.”
For some companies the idea of “teamwork” is just a bunch of lip service, but for me and my team, it was truly how we survived and thrived.
WRITING ON THE WALL
After nine months as the VP of Product Development, I transferred to become VP of Marketing for one of our sister companies, determined to work some of my magic there . . . which I did along with a team of four and the VP of Sales. Together, we got organized, implemented a number of initiatives, and stabilized sales, which was no easy task given the foundering economy.
As the end of 2008 neared, though, it was clear the recession was going to be a long duration event rather than just a temporary blip on the economic radar. Something had to give.
While our team was keeping costs low and sales were steady, with the economy in the tank, there just wasn’t much demand for new product. Despite our best efforts and with growth plateauing, a look at our Profit and Loss statements told the cold, hard truth: we either needed to hire more bodies in marketing to do more, or let someone go.
I saw the writing on the wall. My marketing efforts had put the company in a good enough spot so that it could maintain the status quo with or without me. To get to that next level, would require additional investment—something the CEO and our equity partners were not willing to do.
I had outperformed myself out of a job!
TIME FOR SOMETHING NEW
I could have been angry, and to a certain extent I was. The separation was amicable, but I must admit it’s never fun to be the kid not picked on the playground. I understood the business choice, but it still hurt. Nevertheless, a part of me was feeling the time had come for something new—but what?
On my way out, the CEO (who knew my background, my skill set, and what I was capable of) told me, “you’ll have no trouble getting a job.”
I had no reason to doubt him, or my prospects, but at the time I could not have imagined what came next: in less than six months, Barrel O’Monkeyz would be born.