My entire life is built on the notion that difficult things can be done, and will likely be done by those willing to work the hardest. This ‘bootstrap’ mindset is precisely why I’ve found myself in a world of startups, entrepreneurs, and people doing difficult things. I thrive in a world where people have the ambition to make a better world, regardless of the odds against them.
I was born to two entrepreneurs who likely inspired many of these thoughts. As I grew up, I watched them claw out of near bankruptcy while nurturing the seeds of paradigm shifting industries. One was the first microbrewery in Canada (Granville Island Brewery), and the other was a made to measure fashion design and manufacturing company with a decentralized sales and distribution network that looks exactly like modern day Indochino.
It was entirely my parents fault that I chose this life. They were true heroes to me, even when I was too young to understand why. I saw them attempt, and fail. I saw them attempt again, and again, and eventually I saw them succeed.
Success for them wasn’t riches, fame, and fortune, however. Success was survival. Success was continued existence, living to fight another day. It was a Dread Pirate Roberts success.
“Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”
– The Princess Bride
That is an entrepreneur’s success, however, and I would learn later in life how incredible that success could feel. At the time I saw them sacrifice, as parents do, to build a better life for our family, despite the odds stacked against them.
Mom’s fashion lines found a following, and the ‘factory’ in our basement kept her working overtime. As well, the tides slowly turned, and the lobbyists pushing to keep microbreweries small or illegal eventually lost the fight (after 25 years) and we can now enjoy small batch, craft beer from dozens of dreamers just like dad.
Sadly, the brewery is now owned by Molson’s, the same company that lobbied so hard to keep it from existing. Similarly, many of the other local breweries have been bought up by large brewing companies on the sly, capitalizing on the hyper local branding of seeming independence while in reality fighting a proxy war for market share with each other. Clever capitalism at its finest, if you can’t beat it, buy it.
Some would blame capitalism, as it seems I did just now, but capitalism is a strawman here. Capitalism is a meritocracy, where the greater product, more efficiently produced and distributed, should win. Why then did Bud Light beat out craft beer?
In beer, as in life, eventually we are always choosing between Coke and Pepsi.
The large beer companies/ cola companies are constantly doing battle. We witness the wars being waged, as celebrity champions wield witty repartee in pop culture. It’s terrifically entertaining, and we’re enraptured, even if we don’t buy the products.
The real fight, however is being fought where the stakes are real, and everyone is picking a side. Lobbyists are fighting a bloody ground game to get a leg up on their competition, and ensure no one else can get into the fight. Microbreweries were once illegal, as politicians were originally wooed into regulating a market by limiting entrants and protecting the incumbents. Today’s proliferation of microbreweries is the result of a very public fight, with more than a few casualties, and has taught most politicians that beer is an effective rallying tool.
‘Buck a beer’: Doug Ford announces plan to bring $1 brews back to Ontario.
The Guardian Aug 7, 2018
Politicians have their own Coke v Pepsi war to fight as well. Working with a party ensures the resources to battle the disrupters and dreamers, especially those who might be naive enough to believe that great ideas, work ethic, and experience can trump money.
Those parties are choosing the winners and losers in every fight around us, whether it be through regulating a market at the behest of incumbents, steering policy towards party friendly projects, or restricting resources from competitors.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that national politics is the only real battle ground, either. In his brilliant book Connectography, author Parag Khanna argues convincingly:
“…political geography is not determinant anymore, because cities are more important.”
Municipal politics are the battleground where the stakes may be the highest with regard to their direct impact on your life. Whether you are drinking Bud light, Coke zero, or a 33 acres hand crafted ale is likely decided by your city council, not your president or prime minister.
I can vividly recall some years back, I was at the tail end of a liquor license application for a project, in front of city council for the final presentation and vote. I had spent 2 years on the journey, which started out with a meeting with the head of liquor licensing and had wound through city planning, provincial licensing, public plebiscite, and several architects, engineers, and licensing consultants. We had restored a heritage building back to original in anticipation after being assured by all parties that the council vote was only a formality.
Our presentation had the requisite polish, the messages of support from all the right people, and went through some Q&A with the representatives from police, fire, and heritage. All was going smoothly, and my nerves were somewhat calmed as the council asked very few questions (and the mayor at the time was visibly asleep). When it came time to vote, I was shocked to watch as it split down the middle. The mayor was awoken and cast his vote at the end. None of the no votes had asked any questions. None of the no votes had expressed any concerns. Our motion passed, by a single vote, but I was definitely confused.
Days later, I had one of the council members drop by my Kitsilano restaurant where I still tended bar most nights, and almost by way of apology explained what had happened. She described how there had been another vote on another unconnected matter, and that the other party had simply been required to vote against them on this one. The presentation was a formality, the vote evidently had been in question, and there had been some horse trading in the back room to see it through.
My jaw, dropped, and at that moment my innocence was lost.
Hard work and determination were irrelevant to the process. The merits of the project, our years of building a reputation as a respectable independent business, the hundreds of thousands invested, they weren’t in consideration until after the first question had been answered. Coke, or Pepsi?
As I’m writing this, I recall that this was the last restaurant I opened, and arguably my most ambitious. I don’t know if that moment – that loss of innocence – was the straw on the proverbial camel’s back, but I absolutely recognize I have lost faith that in this city, determination and hard work alone, will carry the day.
I was driven to write this since we have a municipal election upcoming, and although I’m out of the restaurant business, I’m still running two companies here, and very much have a horse in this race. This year marks an historic opportunity, where neither Coke nor Pepsi may prevail, and we may for the first time in history have an independent mayor, and I would like you to consider the argument for making this a reality.
Vancouver has always been a city that prides itself on its independence. We don’t follow Toronto, we don’t follow Ottawa, we chart our own path. We lead, not follow, and we do this because we are made of people who want to change the world, and know how to do it.
Now, full disclosure, I’m about to tell you who I think we should vote for mayor. I’m not going to wrap it up in hyperbole and soundbites, that’s not my thing. I won’t give you the our team vs their team bullshit that drives so much discourse these days, and I won’t try to tell you that we’re at the precipice of a major shift, that the stakes are dire, and the future depends on us making the right choice. I’m going to tell you why this person is imminently more qualified, and why I feel better having this person as mayor than any of the other slate. This is only my opinion, and it’s based on decades of having to feed myself off the assessments of people whom I will either hire, work for, or partner with.
I met Shauna Sylvester at an event where local architects were presenting an artist in residence as part of their community building program. We chatted, and she let me grill her relentlessly on why she could possibly think running for Mayor as an independent was a good idea. Not only did she convince me, but her candor, intelligence, and stark honesty were so unlike any politician I had met. I felt I was talking to one of the many founders I work with. She was focused, deeply intelligent, openly considering new information, and genuinely curious about other possibilities.
Passing it off to the natural charm all aspiring politicians must display, I left the event and did some digging. I pride myself on my google-fu, but I was unprepared for the depth of experience I uncovered. Behind a long list of accomplishments across the globe, there were significant projects and initiatives that she led in tandem with some pretty significant people. Despite never running for office, this woman had a resume of someone who gets things done, and on a grand scale.
Following my curiosity, I convinced her to have coffee with me so I could dig a little deeper, and to my surprise her assistant sent an email over with an address and time she would be available in the following week. After that meeting, I was convinced that she should be our mayor.
We discussed the harsh realities of campaigns, communication, and social media. We discussed why it was so important to her to run independently (one or two of the local parties had rumoured to have asked her to run on their ticket). We also spoke about how provincial parties (NDP, Liberal) were hungry to exert their own influence on a municipal election that was seen as wide open. She spoke with the confidence of someone who had seen 30 years of politics, but who had preferred to work on the policy side (where the real work gets done).
I pressed her on the realities that small businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs are facing in this city, and within minutes we were working on her existing platform, exploring new opportunities and challenges. On housing and homelessness she talked about her years working on the DTES with these people, the complexities of the problems, and where many of the solutions that had previously been working had been defunded, and shelved.
By the end, I had taken too much of her time, but she thanked me for our discussion, and pointed me to a few people to talk to on her team who were eager for more voices to help inform policy. I left, and upon reaching out discovered a very deep, incredibly knowledgeable team of people. She had surrounded herself with experts on every front, and the policy team was in place long before the campaign team had even been considered. This signaled to me that getting policy right was more important than getting elected, and when I realized that – getting her elected had just become important to me.
I’ve spoken with some people who see this as the best opportunity to elect Vancouver’s first woman mayor, and not to belittle that point, but honestly she is hands down our best shot at a mayor who is not beholden to a national party, and is head and shoulders more qualified than any of the other candidates. The bottom line is that in a world where we are always forced to choose between Coke and Pepsi, we get the rare opportunity to choose our own path.
I for one, choose beer. Craft beer.
This message is my own. It is my official, independent endorsement of Shauna Sylvester for Mayor of Vancouver. All debate is welcome, fire away.