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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Monday, June 12, 2000

LA Unconfidential #9

L.A. Unconfidential, Number 9
June 12, 2000

A short one tonight. I feel like I’ve got no new stories to tell. Perhaps I’ve just become increasingly numb to the oddity of southern California in the midst of being totally consumed by work.

You always hear about folks in start-ups being so into what they’re doing that they don’t notice life passing by as they burn up the hours and their bodies and their social skills. It’s ironic that I’ve come to do this in sunny southern California. This is a place that makes it hard not to notice when the sun is out.

When you’re sitting in the office on a Saturday afternoon, you know just how lithe the beach volleyballers are only blocks from you. You know they’re frivolous. You know they aren’t learning as much as you. You know they’re challenge of punching a ball over a net isn’t contributing anything more meaningful than a moment of adrenalin rush and a maintenance schedule for their rippling abs.

But, even though I’m obsessive about achievement, there is at least one beach volleyball point that is not lost on me. I look less and less like a beach volleyballer every day, and more and more like the ball. I’m working for a natural health company, and I’m inside with the fluorescent lights burning up my vitamins.

I’m ten weeks into this adventure. And it is definitely worth it, but I’m looking forward to the time when it doesn’t feel like boot camp anymore. You don’t take this on—growing an unproven business model from scratch, working in chaos, and living under uncertainty—without knowing what you’re getting in to. But, as I’ve said previously, there’s no way you really know what you’re getting into before you’re there.

Allow me the following paternalistic observation from the seat of my once comfortable but fast-disappearing naivete. Ten weeks wiser, now, I know exactly what I’d do differently if I had the last couple months to do over. I would do almost none of the things I have done—not because they were wrong. They weren’t. They’ve all been useful: competitive analysis, content strategy, costing the development pipeline, redesigning the look and feel of the site, re-branding the company, doing a few deals. But none of them was the thing I should have done.

If I could have done only one thing in the first two months on the job, it would have been this: hire. I would have spent as long as I could stand bearing the business in its ugly embryonic state, and I would have scoured every contact in my network to find passionate, smart, bored people. I would have hired them at whatever was their going rate, imbued them with the founder’s vision, and put them to work figuring out some piece of what we were going to do next.

I always thought the difference between intense consulting and intense business building was in the “active doing”. It’s not; it’s in the building. And you build companies with people, not with your own activity, no matter how exalted. You want to know why people are commanding obscene salaries? Show me a truly talented person, I’ll show you my willingness to be obscene.

Thanks, by the way, for all the generous offers of willingness to have an all-expenses-paid winter vacation in southern California. Our HR person will get back to you. Really. We’ll do lunch.

Monday, June 05, 2000

LA Unconfidential #8

L.A. Unconfidential, Number 8
June 5, 2000

Two weeks since the last Unconfidential, and, let’s see… Two weeks ago? That would have been when I’d just been given the “exciting challenge” of being Acting Director of Marketing. (Read, “There’s no one else to do it and you can string three words together without embarrassing yourself.”) Since then, I’ve missed a week of checking in with you? Coincidence? Nope.

I realize, now, that every time in my life I’ve been swamped with work, I’ve always had an immediate sense of the big-picture progress of which my effort was a part. I also realize, now, what a helluva privileged position that was. So many crazy-busy people spend their days burning through every erg of their energy without, at the end of the day, knowing whether they’ve made any progress.

Does it all need to be done? Yes. Once accomplished, are you further ahead? Uh…

That said, this is not a Dilbert cartoon. I am hardly a cubicle slug without hope of making a difference. It is exciting. I see the fruits of my labor. If I screw up, the company gets egg on its face. If I get things right, our face to the world is closer to being Pierce Brosnan and Nicole Kidman, and further from Dame Edna and Gerard Depardieu.

I am faced, daily, with a catch 22, that I have long understood in concept, but am only now, for the first time, grappling with in hand-to-hand combat. And it’s a bitch. You’re so overwhelmed, it’s clear you need to hire some people. But finding and hiring decent people takes serious time, which you don’t have because you’re so freakin’ busy.

This is one of those situations with which consultants have little sympathy. They’d say, “It’s clearly a resource allocation issue. Want me to show you the algorithm?” But, whereas I used to think every middle-class person should spend 3 months being a waiter, I now think that every consultant should spend a few months being an HR person for a startup in a booming labor market.

To their (our?) credit, the consultant is right: I should re-allocate my time to find the additional people I need to give me the necessary leverage. Patch, patch, patch, and hire as fast as you can. It doesn’t take long to understand—and I mean viscerally, not intellectually—why people are commanding such high salaries in this market. There are days when I’d compromise every one of my budgets to get someone with a decent education and some ambition—screw industry experience. Anybody fancy a few months in Southern California at a start-up?

And, of course, that’s all happening alongside the cut-and-thrust of the everyday fun stuff. A couple weeks ago, for example, on the radio show my team runs (KIEV, Los Angeles: “Fifty Thousand Watts of Truth!”), our “expert” host spouted the following statistic off the top of his head: 60,000 child deaths a year in the US from vaccinations. It was a Sunday. I was at the office. I was listening to the show at my desk while working on some other things. I dropped my pen and my jaw simultaneously. Sixty thousand kids a year? Even this yokel without any medical training thought, “It is either the medical world’s best kept secret that more kids die each year from vaccinations than all the people who die from guns, or he’s smokin’ dope.” Turns out, the real number is closer to…3. This is the type of management problem they don’t tell you about in the text books.

I am having fun being a tourist in L.A. Last weekend—a long weekend in the US—two good friends visited from New Jersey. Paul Robertson and Kati Wilhelm, due to be married in September with me standing up the front in a rented suit, came out for a few days of beach-walking and freeway traffic. Together, the three of us rambled around looking at people playing beach volleyball, eating Mexican food (si, con muchas margaritas), driving around West Hollywood with the doors locked, and going to the Getty Museum.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Getty Center, it’s L.A.’s pride in the art department. Called by some foreign critics “the best art collection money can buy”, it’s also familiarly known as the museum most pissed off that the Guggenheim snatched global architectural attention in Bilbao away from the otherwise architecturally splendid Getty which had opened only a couple of years earlier. Alan Bond’s beloved Irises ended up on the walls of the Getty at fire-sale prices, joining just about anything else on which the Getty Trust feels like spending its inexhaustible dividends.

Paul, Kati and I walked around the hill-top campus with a tour guide who took great pains to point out that the architect had compromised mightily for the benefit of the local residents. The architect, it turns out, is famous for his stark white buildings. The residents, concerned about having a blinding white reflector on the nearest peak under the blazing West Coast sun, forced the famous architect to back down. And he bowed to the will of the people: the whole place is off-white.

Welcome to L.A., land of color.

One last addendum for regular readers of this journal. You may recall the on-going credit struggles of the protagonist in his new country. At the trough of my despair on the issue, I received a packet of forwarded mail from my Citibank branch in Sydney. It appears I’ve been pre-approved for a Visa gold card…in Australia.