Author Archives: Sean Sherwood

About Sean Sherwood

Serial entrepreneur and startup coach at www.startupathlete.com

Vote for Mayor? Vote for Beer!

No Coke, No Pepsi.  ca 1925.

ca. 1925 — Four women line up along a wall and chug bottles of liquor in the 1920s. — Image by © Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

 

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.

Shauna’s Platform

 

 

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Confessions of a Grinch

Ninna Sherwood, Western Living Magazine, 1974

Ninna Sherwood, Western Living Magazine, 1974

1999 was the year Christmas and I broke up.

I was 6 months into opening my first venture, a tiny, bootstrapped little winebar in the college area of Kitsilano, Vancouver.  It had been a hard start, fueled almost entirely by blind enthusiasm, long hours, and the relentless fear of failure that only crippling debt will instill.  I was Facing the coming January February shoulder season which had the potential to bankrupt us, and decided that was the year I just plain didn’t have time for Christmas.


I had been spoiled by Christmas growing up.  Fantastic family outings, a fully decorated house, mom’s celebrated feast (famously featured in Western Living ’74), and a month of seasonal baking that carried well past the holidays.  The Sears catalog was always handy in the months prior for us to circle and dog-ear our wish-list, and even when we were struggling to make ends meet, the tree always went up and would be bursting with perfectly wrapped gifts for me and my brother.


Christmas was a sure bet in our family, when 364 days of attempting good behavior had a guaranteed positive result.  When you’re of the age when you measure happiness in toys, candy, and cartoons, it’s become the benchmark by which all other holidays are measured, and found wanting.


All of this is why I could never understand why one year, everything changed.  I had long since transitioned from toys and candy to aged cheese and brandy, quite happily, and being on the first step of a journey I’d spent 10 years preparing for, I still had a dreamer’s optimism percolating through me.  Maybe it was that first year of being truly too broke to buy anyone a present, or the year i rolled my jeep in the mountains on Christmas eve and found myself with a sleeping bag full of presents trying to find a way home to be with the family.  Maybe it was just that time in my life when I thought I’d outgrown it. I never really could pinpoint it, and year after year I found myself drifting further from the yuletide spirit, until one year Sue came right out and said it to my face.


‘You’re a grinch’


Dealing with me and my Christmas hate had started to grow thin, to the point where i think i was wrecking it for her as well.  She grilled me, and I mumbled out the regular ramblings about commercialism, money, the religious hypocrisy of appropriating pagan holidays for their own, cabbage patch dolls, barbie, Walmart, Hallmark holidays, yada yada yada, and it started to turn into a rant.  Accumulated years of angst and watching what i had thought was this pure magical holiday turned to shit started a cathartic vomit from me in such a tirade that even I hated me when i was finally out of breath, out of words, but still not out of anger at my once favourite holiday.


I understand now, 15 years removed from the first time i quit Christmas, why it happened, but it wasn’t for any of the reasons I sputtered on about, even though they were straight legit reasons to quit.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for 15 years I’ve wanted only one thing, one thing i know I’ll never get, and i’ve been in a 15 year temper tantrum ever since.


I want more time.


In only 6 months of entrepreneurial life I had learned that time was more valuable than anything else, and it might be the one thing i could never afford. That first year I needed one more week of revenue out of a month that would see 6 days of holiday shutdown, and I didn’t know where to find it.  In following years we honed the science of maximizing holiday sales with party bookings, gift cards, New Years events, but we worked like dogs every December to make it happen.  The holidays became a crucial time for execution, and there was no time for shopping, friends, family, trees, baking, snowball fights, or holiday parties.  I vividly remember sitting alone at the bar after closing one Dec 23rd, pouring a baileys on ice and watching the Grinch.  Exhausted, stressed, and hoping we had done enough to carry us until Valentines day, Christmas had become one hell of a business disruption, despite being a great excuse to drink baileys at breakfast.


That year I decided it would be different, and as I scowled at the TV Grinch with Bailey’s breath, I turned my back on Christmas past, and decided to build a Christmas future.


The restaurant business is famous for Christmas orphans.  Staffed predominantly by travellers, students, artists, and dreamers, a restaurant becomes a family around holidays, and ours was no different.  That night, inspired to change, I called upon every cherished holiday memory, and decided to cook a feast for my new family.


I invited any who would come, staff, regulars, people off the street, friends, for a Christmas Eve dinner, just like my Mom used to make.  I painstakingly recreated her signature red cabbage, and Danish almond pudding (the single whole almond hidden inside nets a marzipan pig to whoever finds it!).  I had a commercial kitchen at my disposal, an empty restaurant, and loads of people around who might otherwise not get a feast of their own.  I cooked for a day and a night, straight through, and 40 friends, staff, and strangers had a family for Christmas that year.


Year after year I picked up the knives and the apron and would cook for my restaurant family after a grueling Christmas season, and spend Christmas day passed out, blissfully sleeping until noon and skipping the typical ceremony.  Year after year we skipped the tree, decorations, and even instituted a ‘no gifts’ rule with the family.  Socks, underwear, and booze, of course, were all gratefully accepted.  It seemed I might be able to vanquish the Grinch within me, albeit mostly with alcohol and work.


Selling the restaurants in 2007, however, introduced a significant stumble to the 12 step program, and soon I was back to my old Grinchy self.  Everywhere you go during the holidays, people are lining up to buy shit they don’t need with money they don’t have.  If you stand back and watch Christmas as a spectator, it’s genuinely horrifying.  Black Friday brawls, parking lot road rage, offshore factory worker suicides, Monsanto hormones in the eggnog, factory farms churning out Turkeys by the truckload…and the band plays on.  Jingle all the way you crazy bastards, thanks for shopping at Walmart!


That was it, I was finished with Christmas for good, and was glad to be done with it.  No presents, no tree, no lights, no goddamn way I’m getting caught up in that bullshit.  With no other Christmas orphans around to cook for, I was free to wallow in my own Grinchitude.  Bah Humbug, damn rights.


Now listen, anyone can quit Christmas, it’s easier than quitting any other vice.  You can cheat a little, with minimal consequences.  You might find yourself enjoying some gingerbread, absent mindedly humming a carol, or indulging in an eggnog latte, but come January you can go right back to ignoring Christmas for another 11 months.  Christmas is so forgiving, because you can sneak a little of it one day a year, and you know you won’t be shaving 10 years off your life for one bad decision.


My problem wasn’t quitting Christmas, that was easy.  Like any breakup, I’ve done my best to hold on to the great memories, remember what brought us together in the first place, and focus on all the things that mattered.  I still keep those tucked away in the part of my brain that refuses to believe I don’t have superpowers (I just haven’t figured out how to unlock them), the part where the excitement and curiosity I had when I was 6 has built a blanket fort to keep the cynicism and harsh reality at bay.  This is the safe deposit box that my entrepreneurial brain dips into when it needs a spark, and needs to believe that a great idea can succeed in the face of insurmountable odds.


Rifling through those memories as a new father, though, I started to see them through a new lens.  I imagined being in my parent’s shoes, struggling with the same entrepreneurial stresses, financial troubles, and problems of their own, and facing a couple of brats like me and my brother.  They rocked Christmas hard every year, and every year we lost our minds with excitement.  Lego, handmade clothes, hand baked cookies, and the best Christmas dinner you could imagine.  They never mailed it in, not even once, and they had every excuse to do so.


I realized a torch had been passed.  I had been on the receiving end of so much awesome Christmas, and I was in danger of breaking the chain.  My daughter deserved to love Christmas like I did, she deserved to believe in magic, and fairy tales, and make believe, and just because life got hard for me shouldn’t wreck the holidays for her.  If I had any respect for the sacrifices my parents had made, I had a duty to pay it forward.


So, last year I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and dove in, jingle bells deep, to Christmas.


It didn’t hurt, not even a little, despite being broke, bootstrapping 2 new companies, and completely stressed for time.  I dare say I even enjoyed it a little.  I still had issues with Christmas, but I kept them to myself.  I  stopped paying attention to how everyone else is doing it, stopped being a spectator, and started taking it shift by shift.  Every day was about giving my family the best Christmas they could have, and it was awesome.  I spent two months building my daughter a custom dollhouse that she never plays with, but her face on Christmas morning was the face that every parent plays the game for.  That was the day I started using Christmas again.


I didn’t discover that my mom’s Christmas dinner was actually famous until we were sifting through old pictures and Dad pulled out the 6 page magazine spread from 1974.  If you look closely, you’ll see the red cabbage and almond pudding, and I kid you not we still have those same serving dishes 40 years later.


This year, Christmas will be just the three of us, and for good reason.  Next year we’re opening up Christmas dinner to the public again, at the house, so if you find yourself without a date on the 24th of Dec. 2015, give us a ring.


15 years after I quit cold turkey, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m off the wagon, and high on my own supply.


Happy Holidays Everyone!

The Best Advice I Ever Ignored.

red-pill-blue-pill

A stranger’s advice is usually worth what you paid for it.

Diddly.

I know this because last year I spent months dedicated to helping 6 people solve their biggest life dilemma on a TV show/social experiment called ‘The Audience’. It was a sometimes ugly, often gut wrenching process that dragged 50 strangers through the emotional muck of someone else’s life struggles, in a last gasp attempt to help them move on with their lives and find happiness.

You have to be desperate when you’re willing to let 50 people follow you around for a week, strip you emotionally naked, and grill your closest friends and family like Columbo on cross examination. You have to be at a point when the advice of your closest friends didn’t work, or is split down the middle. For these 6 people, life had literally stopped, and every new step in their life hinged on a decision they couldn’t make. They had stopped living, because a problem they couldn’t solve was in the way.

Inviting a group of strangers into your life isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the weight of 50 people silently judging every decision they had made in their life quickly overwhelmed every person we tried to help. Even our most diplomatic attempts to balance the investigation came across like an inquisition, every question an insinuation that somewhere along the line they had made poor, self- serving decisions in life. It was a necessary evil to help us understand their situation, but it was as painful to participate in as I’m sure it will be to watch.

Imagine your mother in law telling you how to live your life, and multiply it by 50.

Anyone would be excused for flipping off ‘the fifty’ at that point and instructing them to go pound sand. I would have, and sometimes did, but it speaks to how much trouble they were having solving their problem, and it humbled me very quickly.

Fifty vastly different people brought a tremendous array of perspectives, but with it the inevitable reality that we wouldn’t always get along. Conflict in the group only grew once we got emotionally invested in the problem.

Once we got to work on a problem, we immediately started dishing out the type of advice that you get for free. We had no stakes in the game, only our own philosophies and judgements about how life is to be lived. We simply slapped those on the particular issue, wiped our hands of it, and patted ourselves on the back for being so clever. Useless twats, and I was the proudest peacock of them all.

Three days in, however, things had changed. As we unravelled the journey this person had taken to get to this point, we started to understand the stakes a little more, we began to realize the consequences that each path would incur, and we started to grasp the full weight of the compromises that had to be taken.

What was worse, however, was that we started to care.

By this point, these people had stopped being unknown random people, we would spend 5 solid days with them, poring through their lives deepest secrets and vulnerabilities. We would grill their loved ones and families for clues that might help us understand more. We would end up learning far more than we had expected, and often we were shocked by what we uncovered. We were there for our objectivity, our reason, and our perspective, and by day three we had become so emotionally invested that we lost all of them. By day 5, we had journeyed so far into the problem that most of us would go home and hug our families, no longer worried about our own problems, and with a renewed appreciation for the things we had.

Once we cared, the stakes became real, and everything changed. We changed.

To this day I don’t know if that made the advice we gave better or worse, but I know that it stopped being worthless. At that point it stopped being a judgement of all these people’s past decisions, all their personal hang-ups, and every bit of baggage they had been collecting throughout their lives, and it became a collective effort to stop the cycle, help them to stop looking back, and start to move forward.

The greatest mistake in life is to make no mistakes at all.

The dilemmas we faced had no middle ground. There was a choice between a path to take, and one to abandon, and the path not taken would haunt them for the rest of their life. In each choice they made, there would be a bucket of regret served alongside, and no matter how many people we threw at the problem, that would never change.

They say you should walk a mile in another man’s moccasins, and we probably logged 20.  All i got was sore feet until i realized that this process taught me an amazing thing about life, and it was the one piece of advice I needed to hear.

Advice is only worth the action it inspires. There are no wrong decisions. Your ability to squeeze every bit of happiness and satisfaction from the decisions you make is the secret to their success.

The Audience – premieres tonight at 10pm on W Network.

Let me know what you thought of our decision.


Happiness is a slippery fish

Pray for a difficult life

By

Years ago I read a study that said one of the most stated regrets of people on their deathbeds was that they hadn’t built a better relationship with their parents.

The oft repeated quote ‘no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more days at work’ has also been slyly directed my way more than once, enough that I might even start to listen.  The other regret, however, weighs heavily on me.

I’ve watched with some concern as my parents get older.  As a kid, time passes so slowly that you take everything for granted.  Your parents have all the answers, I was sure my dad could beat up anyone else’s dad, and it just seemed like they’d both be around forever.  Watching them age, even as gracefully as they have, has been a stark reminder that those regrets are rooted in a harsh reality.

I’ve had a front row seat as they both crafted entrepreneurial ventures from the ground up.  They took big risks, worked hard, and eventually those ventures grew strong enough to pull us out of crippling debt.  Some years later, they co-signed a loan to help me start my first restaurant.

The circle of debt continues…

My folks are the people I aspired to be.  Self-made entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and still found a way to achieve their dreams, they were proof that you didn’t need charity, or luck, or a silver spoon.  Coming from an Alberta farm, my dad’s solution to every problem was hard work, and my mother, fresh off the boat from Denmark, was always crafting, innovating, and thinking of new ways to approach old problems.  Together they were a formidable pair, and watching them flip the bird to the corporate establishment and do it themselves felt like the greatest ‘fuck you’ to a world that I was just starting to realize wasn’t built to be fair.

A few years after they co-signed my first business loan, I had three busy restaurants, a social calendar filled with wine dinners, fashion galas, poker nights, wrap parties, and all the other bullshit I thought was cool at the time.  I barely saw my folks in those days, I couldn’t manage to find the time to cross town and have dinner once a week, and was losing touch despite living a 30 minute drive away.  It couldn’t have been any easier to stay in touch, and yet, I didn’t.  I started to realize why those regrets would be on the lips of every person as they took stock of their existence.  It was just so damn easy to take it for granted.

Forever isn’t forever, and time is a thief that distracts you, so that it can more easily steal your most precious moments.

I could see myself following in the footsteps of millions who came to regret their apathy, and I resolved to do something about it.  Something drastic.

I moved into my parent’s basement.

It started off as awkwardly as you can imagine.  The house was in a quiet suburb, populated by lousy chain restaurants, with nothing but raccoons and a long commute to keep you entertained.  Restaurant life was hectic, social, and wildly unpredictable.

It seemed like I was walking away on a life that had enough booze and badly behaving people to stay interesting for quite some time.

After working for years to build the lifestyle I wanted, I had traded it in for the hope that I could avoid that single regret, the lingering wistfulness of memories that were never created, the opportunities forever lost.  In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Today is my father’s birthday.  He is turning 74.

I’m broke, completely invested in a new business adventure, and I can’t afford to buy him a gift.  I find myself quite humbled, and I’ve justified to myself that perhaps the better gift has been this time together.

It’s a lie, of course.  That gift was a gift I gave myself, and keep re-gifting without guilt, year after year.

My father was my first mentor, my first business advisor, and the best sounding board I’ve ever had.  He built Canada’s first microbreweries (Granville Island Brewery, Upper Canada  Brewery) with a group of friends, starting one of the greatest movements the modern world has ever seen, craft beer.  It was an impossible dream, an unlikely success, and was beset by obstacles, challenges, and an unproven market (there was beer, and light beer, brewed to taste ‘cold’…seriously, wtf does ‘cold’ taste like).   That he did it at a time when our family was struggling with the fallout from the housing crash of ’82 is a constant reminder to me that our family is at its best when our backs are against the wall.  I can still remember at 9 years old stuffing beer bottles into six pack containers to help out opening week, and getting my first hangover off batch #1 of GI lager (parenting was a little different back then).

My father’s father, Farley Sherwood, was rather persuasive about him getting a college education, so he came out west to earn a degree in forestry from UBC.  He went back and landed a job on the radio, leveraged that fame to marry the local hotty, went on to sales (Imperial Oil), and eventually became the Marketing Manager for McDonald’s in Western Canada.

That was the job he quit when I was six, and to this day it remains a vivid memory.  He checked out, mid way through a great career, in his prime.  I remember him telling me and my brother that he was unhappy, his job wasn’t fulfilling, and he hated the politics.  Confused, I struggled with the notion that your job was something you could enjoy, not just a paycheck.  I was also more than a little concerned that we had just broken up with McDonalds.  Even in the pre-nugget era that place had a grip on my heart, and I was pretty stoked to have happy meal connections.  I was literally on a first name basis with the Hamburgler.

At six years old, I was served a reality check that indoctrinated me into the entrepreneurial ranks, and I had no idea.

We flirted with bankruptcy.

Actually, it was more of a long, drawn out affair.  My folks had bought their dream house, and, counselled by their realtor into keeping the old one as long as possible to ride the rising market, they got caught in the crash.   They owed twice as much as the houses were worth, and were getting crushed by 24% interest rates on two mortgages.

Just like that, happiness became a luxury we couldn’t afford.

We moved into the basement, and rented out the rest of the houses to help cover the mortgages, and Dad called a family meeting to craft a plan.

My brother and I got paper routes, lots of them.  We stuffed flyers, mowed lawns, and did other odd jobs.  My mother pulled a page out of the 3 Amigo’s script, and when asked what she could do to help, she said ‘I can sew’.  Her little craft business grew into a sportswear business that grew into a national fashion company with an impressively innovative distribution model.  It was the precursor to companies like Indochino, long before the digital age, and as my dad tells it, it was the rope that pulled us out of hell.

He was good at what he did, and he picked up gigs as a marketing consultant.  Then, maybe because crazy plans were something he’d grown far more comfortable with, he and his friends came up with the idea to build a brewery, using the fresh Vancouver water, with all the heart and soul of being for locals, by locals.  There were three large brewers at the time, and they paid the little upstart no mind.  Within a year, however, they saw market share escaping, and combined forces to crush the microbrewery movement hard.  It was too late, the market had gotten a taste, and soon small craft breweries were opening faster than Molson’s, Labbatt’s and O’Keefes could squash them.  Unionizing plants, controlling bottle regulations, even excise and production limitations were successfully lobbied for, but microbreweries found a way to make it work, something that’s easier when you have customers clamoring for your product.

Happiness was a fish he had once tossed back into the water for being too small, and now he had hooked the big one.

My dad’s tolerance for risk had put him in deeper waters, and we almost drowned, but I’m convinced it was going through the struggles which gave him the hunger to appreciate every opportunity he had, and land that big fish when it counted.  With my mom’s business thriving as well, they had pulled off the rare double, and there wasn’t a doubt left in my mind who my heroes were.  The seed had been planted, my mind had been made, I saw the difficult path as the most attractive, with the biggest payoffs, and I was determined to be an entrepreneur just like them.

After 50, he started to look tired, and sometimes I wondered if he had grown a little weary of the world.  He was supposed to be pushing retirement, and seemed to be genuinely considering it, even though there seemed to be lots more left in the tank.  His signature glint in his eye didn’t appear so much, and I was wondering if it would ever return when the colleges came calling. That started a change.

I’d like to believe that being around young, idealistic students who still hold the notion that the world is theirs to change, was the reason he sparked up, and maybe it was just that he could stand in front of a room full of cute college girls and they’d believe every word he said (…and, I just realized I want to be a teacher), but he had a renewed energy, and the glint that had lived in his eyes for so many years was back, and brighter than ever.

He taught marketing and sales all the way up to 65, when they forced him into retirement.  It was an outdated union rule that would end up being changed a couple of years too late, and I think he would have continued teaching to this day if they’d let him.  The amount of his former students who still come up to me to tell me how much they learned from him, how important he was for them, and how much they loved his stories, is staggering.

I had one of them doing his best to vigorously convince me of how cool my dad is, and all I could do was nod, smile, and think, you don’t even know the half of it.

My dad’s retirement party was bittersweet.  He didn’t want to celebrate it, as much as everyone wanted to celebrate him.  He was getting pushed out, just when he was having the most fun.  I remember thinking how odd it was, how broken the system, that its greatest contributors are removed when they’re at their most effective.

A man provides.  He contributes.

We measure our worth by our ability to be the mind or muscle that moves mountains, even if it’s only a single stone at a time.  We measure our lives by what we did, our contributions, and our impact. Take that away, and you take a fundamental part of our identity.  We need purpose, and when we have it, we will build, we will act, we will overcome.  When we don’t, we start losing our curiosity, our ambition, and our willingness to tackle anything but a ham sandwich and an afternoon nap.

When my dad retired, his signature spark, the glint in his eye, started to fade again.  Without the regular influx of young idealism, boundless energy, and world changing ambition into his daily routine, I think he struggled to find a reason to give a shit.  The chores around the house became the problems he needed to solve, and everyone knows that trimming the hedges doesn’t solve sweet fuck all.

I think often about carrying on the family name, of doing it justice.

My brother and I both have daughters, and that means the surname attached to our future generations won’t be his. I’m ok with it now.  His surname has power to me because of who he is, who his father was, and all the fathers before him who worked their asses off to move the sticks a few yards further.  They had different surnames, with different meanings to the sons and daughters who bore them on.  The name represents those men, their sacrifices, their risks, their failures, and their successes, and while the name will change, their legacy will not, because of what they invested in their children, who invested it into my father, who has since invested it in me.

I’ve realized now, that as I was building my companies, my family, and my career, I thought I was creating a legacy.  I wasn’t.  I’ve inherited his.   It has made me even more determined to measure up.  I inherited a legacy from a long line of people who struggled and sacrificed to move the sticks a little further, and I’ll be damned if I’m the generation that fucks it all up.

The birth of my daughter was unexpected, and life changing.  I’ve never been more scared of anything than when she first stopped breathing, seven weeks premature, and I was completely helpless to do anything about it.  My parents were there for every minute, and without them I’d have been a complete wreck.  (I was still a wreck, just with the support to ensure I could fake it appropriately)

From that moment on, my father’s choices in life made perfect sense.  It wasn’t ambition, or pride, or even greed, which fueled his decision to chase happiness.  He had learned the stakes of the game, that once you have seen how frail and impossible happiness is, how delicate and improbable its survival, you realize you need to fight for it.  You need to put the bullshit on the line, the houses, the cars, the jobs and the fancy titles, and you need to put all that shit on red and spin the fucking wheel because the cost of having it far outweighs the cost of reaching for it.

I know my parents would like me to learn from their mistakes, I just can’t.

I ignored their mistakes, I forgot the times they yelled at me for fucking up (there were more than a few of those).   I wrote over any memory of my father not being the man I wanted to grow up to be like.  I saw every challenge he endured only through the successful outcome he wrestled from it.

It sounds naïve, but it isn’t.  I studied everything he did that made him my hero, and tossed the rest.  What do I need to know about mistakes he made?  I know enough about pain and struggles, I’m a fucking connoisseur of the curveballs life can throw, and the only shot I’ve had of overcoming those is from studying someone with a demonstrated expertise in overcoming them.

I’m lucky, I know.  Perspective is everything for me now.

I’m lucky that my parents would put up with my shit, give me a shot at avoiding this one regret, and teach me how to bait the hook and reel happiness in.  Evangeline, our daughter, has inherited her Grandfather’s signature spark, and in turn, rekindled his, and they’ve formed a two person, cookie-snatching conspiracy.

I don’t know that this was the happiness that my father had in mind when he quit his job to start us on this adventure.  I do know that on my deathbed, I will have one fewer regrets to list off before I pass on the torch to Evangeline.

Today is my dad’s birthday, and when I grow up, I want to be just like him.

Go post a dirty joke on his wall, he could use some new material.  https://www.facebook.com/larry.sherwood.50

You see the glint, don't you...

You see the glint, don’t you…


WTF is Success?

Image

This guy gets it.

In my younger years, I owned a 1973 VW van.  It was a sweet ride, slow as hell, but smooth, and the pull out bed in the back was perfect for lazy afternoons and hazy nights after hitting the bars.  Because I thought I was some kind of badass, I had written on the back of this shit-box, ‘don’t laugh, your daughter might be in here’.

As is the requirement when you own such a vehicle, there are times when society (and your well persuasive and most likely criminal friends) requires that it be used as a hotbox.  While it was foolish, I’m a slave to convention, weak willed, and like all stupid things it seemed like a great idea at the time. It’s also at that point that I learned how words lose their meaning once you’ve said them a few times.

Jumping into the startup scene is just like climbing into that van.  It looks like a party on the outside, and everyone inside is smiling, but mostly they’re just repeating the same words over, and over, and over.   Those words sound so cool when you say them the first time, and your mouth forms them slower, savouring the nuances and dissonant tonalities, and one smart asshat giggles to himself when he cracks ‘I just had a vowel movement’.   By the end of the night, everyone is convinced that they’ve achieved enlightenment, but the reality is they’re just high, and everything sounds cool when you’re high.

Success is one of those words that gets passed around the startup bus.  It’s not a word we were worried about in those days, clearly, but lately I’ve chewed on that word daily, draw it across my palate slowly, and spit it out to read the tea leaves.  I have read about, dissected, and listened to every successful person as they describe success in ways most people can’t even consider.  I have become a connoisseur, a success sommellier, my nose has become attuned to discover its signature where many can only taste bitter rejection, and I have experienced it in so many flavours that I have become a connoisseur.

I can’t help but feeling, however, that I had a better understanding of it back in that van.  Ignorant, carefree, reckless, and directionless.  Back then, I could reduce success to a moment.  A goal scored, a paycheck cashed, third base with a pretty girl, these were tangible successes that produced immediate results.

I wanted to change the world like any 20 year old does, but it was so distant a possibility, so grand an ambition, that despite talk being cheap it was the only thing I could afford.

Now however, I have had my taste, and I want more.  The genie is out of the bottle, I know we can change the world, the technology is in our hands, I have solved problems, built million dollar companies, and built a family.  My tastes have grown more complex, though, and while every day I tell myself to be happy with that sunset, my beautiful family, my relatively good health, I can’t help but start looking for my next fix.

Once you believe anything is possible, how can you sit by and wait for someone else to do it?

Building Nickler has been humbling.  I was prepared for the ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ mentality, I was prepared for the crippling rejection from investors with little appetite for risk and even less vision for the future, I was even prepared for the mental stress of the debt I’ve racked up.  What I wasn’t prepared for was being cut off from the steady drips of success through my veins.

Every project gives you little goosebumps along the way, keeping you in the game, motivated, pushing for the next little rush.  Building the restaurant group, I rode those waves hard, 16 hour days of pure adrenaline, stress, and victory were easy to string together, and months went by like a blur.

Those are the times that you attract outstanding people to your cause, because awesome people look for other awesome people.

Nickler has been a grind.  We started sprinting at the beginning, thinking that what we were building was a little app that would be quick to develop.  Wireframes, workflows, logic, and integrations were dutifully planned out, three months turned to six, six turned to 9, and we soon realized we had created an entire platform.  The genie grants wishes, but will always play his tricks, and I found myself reaching too far, a victim to my own ambition.

We had patted ourselves on the back for solving the problem on paper.  We solved it elegantly, simply, and the market validation responses were rabid.  All we had to do was build it, and building it with one developer has been like washing the Empire State Building with a toothbrush.   There are no easy shortcuts to take, it either works completely or it’s useless.  So we trudge on, and very soon, we’ll be ready for launch.

Success, that fickle tart, has been playing hard to get.

Persistence is one thing, but lately it feels like it’s flirting with insanity.  I’ve had no choice but to diversify and get my fix elsewhere.  It feels like cheating, but when you’ve got mouths to feed, a mortgage, and an entrepreneurial addiction, the justifications come easily.

Six months ago I started http://www.andersenwoodwork.com with a genius in the trade, Neil Andersen.  We do cabinets, custom architectural millwork, and installations.  Despite a slow start, today we’ve got two crews running and are on pace to hit $1m in sales this year.  I’m damn proud of what Neil and I have built so early, and it speaks volumes about his reputation in that industry.

I filmed six episodes of a TV show called The Audience.  I met some outstanding people, and we spent five straight days each episode solving other people’s problems.

I worked as a chef at a local daycare, for giggles, cooking for 45 toddlers, and realized we could streamline their culinary system while improving the quality of ingredients with only a few tweaks.  I built a new business model for corporate that showed them how to increase quality and efficiency with only organic and local produce for less than they were currently spending.

I learned how to box, lost 25 lbs, and cracked a rib.  I probably would’ve broken my jaw as well if the rib hadn’t gone first.  The rush of battling pain, exhaustion, and big men who want to hurt me was the closest I’ve got so far to the fix I need.  I find myself looking for scary guys to fight, I convince myself they’re packing heat to avoid fighting them.

Sometimes I convince myself of little lies to keep the illusion that I’m in control.  I’m not.  The biggest lie I tell myself is that I can do anything, be anything, and achieve my dreams.  My dreams include private islands with submarine caverns, genetically engineering Unicorns, and becoming a martial arts expert.

For two years my plan was to build, launch, and grow Nickler into an outstanding success, and I’ve failed at that, so far.  I had charted a path to success, and that path has felt like a complete shit show, a gong show, a complete goat rodeo.  Lately I’ve been thinking I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Success isn’t a thing.  It’s not an achievement, a milestone, or an award.

Success is an idea, and the more you play with it, study it, and seek to understand it, the less it means.  Stop studying success and go chase failure, you’ll learn far more and have way more fun.

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Nicknames

photo by adamandkev photography     www.adamandkev.com

photo by adamandkev photography http://www.adamandkev.com

In boxing, everyone has a nickname.  Cool ass nicknames like ‘the machine’, ‘lightning’, or ‘terminator’.

I’ve got a nickname.  It’s not a cool nickname.  It’s the kind of nickname you dread earning.  It’s the kind that you earn in grade school and follows you forever.  It’s a nickname I’ve earned, and nothing pisses me off more than that.

‘Take a knee’ Sherwood…

I readily admit, my penchant for taking a knee early on hasn’t earned me the respect of my coaches, peers, or frankly myself, but I’ve spent my whole life protecting myself from unreasonable physical harm, and it’s a tough habit to break.  That coupled with the fact that I didn’t have the conditioning to last a full round, I didn’t have the defensive skill to avoid taking multiple heavy shots to the head, and I had the ill advised bravado to keep going in the ring with guys bigger, stronger and meaner than me.

Some problems are addressable, like conditioning, defense, and movement.  Others, like a preference for diplomatic discussion as soon as I get punched in the face, are a bit more difficult to train away.  That said, I spent the last two weeks dedicated to duct taping the gaping holes in my defense, doubled down on movement drills, and spent the off days on strength and conditioning training.  Those were controllable issues that formed most of my excuses, the rest is just a question of mettle.

Monday’s training came, and two weeks of training had made me stronger, fitter, and far more defensive, so I called out coach Brian and went into the ring with the single goal of going the full round.

Brian is a solid, strong, and quick guy, but I’ve got 30 pounds on him.  By rights, I should have an advantage, but he’s fast, skilled, and beats on guys like me for a living.

Like a surgeon, he picked apart my defense and threw quick, stinging shots anywhere and everywhere.  I panicked, turtled, and covered any part of me I could.  Immediately, I knew how this movie would end, and resigned myself to find a way to last it out.  I was throwing jabs, and he was answering with quick combos, finding spots to nip, tuck, and tweak.  I found myself tiring at that familiar place one minute in, I had blown it all again on punches that never pierced his guard, and had two minutes to turtle, catch my breath, and hopefully avoid the crusher.

But it didn’t end, I didn’t tire out, and I felt for the first time like I had the energy to mount a counter-attack.  He was dancing around me, backing me into the ropes, and picking me apart.  Like always, I felt like quitting, making the pain stop, and taking a knee, but the weeks of conditioning and the training kicked in, and my second wind arrived.

I threw a jab, then two, and the stinging stopped.  My shoulders, usually weighted with fatigue, had strength, a bit of energy, and were more than a little pissed off.  I threw another jab, and followed it with a right so filled with righteous anger it pushed through his flawless defense and landed.  Adrenaline, sweet and pure, poured fuel on a fire that had finally turned to flame inside me, and I answered his barrage with a flurry of jab, hook, uppercut combos, pushing him against the ropes, wearing a turtle shell of his own.  It was empowering, amazing, and a little frightening.  For the first time in the ring, I was in control, I was the harbinger of justice, and justice was being served.

I was proud as hell, but spent.  I wasn’t going to be able to keep up the torrid pace, and with a minute left I backed off to center ring, gave Brian a chance to recover, and waited for him to come to me.  My defense had held up, I’d weathered the storm, but another one was coming, and this one had a purpose.  Coach was intent on teaching a different kind of lesson, one that leaves a slightly deeper impression.

Speed is everything in boxing.  Speed is power.  Like a golf swing, the perfect punch seems effortless, and is honed to rote execution from years of dedicated practice.  Jab, punch, hook.  It’s a basic combination designed to break apart a defensive guard and set it up for a devastating hook at the end.   Seasoned boxers do this combo in their sleep, rhythmically pounding it out on heavy bags day after day after day.  It is so ingrained into their muscle memory that it escapes thought, avoids the microsecond delays of conscious thought, and becomes reflex itself.

Jab, punch, hook.  I saw it coming, and knew it instantly.  I had practiced this, I knew this, I could defend this.  Every shot that had dropped me to this point had been to the head, and I locked that shit up like Fort Knox.  Coolly, I nudged the jab aside, curved my glove against the incoming punch and deflected it upwards, with this economy of motion I ensured both hands were up and I was ready for the incoming hook.  I was already planning my jab, jab, punch response when it came, low, and in the ribs, lifting me off the canvas with a yelp and into gravity’s familiar embrace.

The contact was unexpected, and quite an unsettling surprise, but more so was the sharp pain and shortness of breath from having my lungs collapsed.  What was worse, though, was that I was there on one knee, on the canvas, begging for oxygen, humbled once again.  I anticipated the head and he took the body.  My normal fat based defense worn away by the weeks and months of training left my ribs without cushion for all 160 lbs of Brian to be concentrated into a single point of devastating impact, and it dropped me.

With 15 seconds left on the clock, time wound down, and another round where I had been measured, and found lacking, had passed.

A hard lesson learned, with a painful reminder.  It’s clear that coach Brian knows how to make sure the curriculum sinks in.

I went home and iced it, popped some pills, and walked it off.  Being humbled I’m used to, sports injuries are nothing new, and I was happy to see some progress, but to end up on my knee once again was demoralizing.  I nursed my wounds in a hot bath with a cold beer, and I made a silent promise to myself that I would never stay down again.  If they want to see me on my knees again, they’ll have to put me there.

But only if I don’t put them there first


Pain is my Concubine

www.adamandkev.com

Photo by Adam Schelle                  www.adamandkev.com

Every morning I wake up to her.  Sometimes she lies with me, quietly, and helps me ease into the day.  Most times she is impatient, insistent.   She won’t accept anything less than the complete enforcement of her presence upon me.  She will not dictate my actions, but her presence alone spurs me forward, outward, into motion, away from her, but yet always within her embrace.

We didn’t meet by accident, or by design.  One morning – our first – I awoke to her touch, and although unfamiliar, it wasn’t foreign, or frightening, and I found myself retracing the previous night’s adventures in an attempt remember the details of our little indiscretion.

She visited me often, never giving any indication she would stay, or any idea of when she might return.  To say we felt love would be an exaggeration.  We were intimate, she knowing far more about me than I her, but we weren’t beholden.   I knew she had others, I knew some of them were better men than me, more deserving.  I knew they had fought to earn her attention, while I had simply gone about my life, waiting for her to randomly show up, never really knowing what it was to love her, to need her, or to lose her.

As the years went by, my life got quiet, I settled down, I got comfortable.  Fewer wild nights led to fewer nights together, until I rarely saw her at all.  The few times she did show up, my resentment was so much that I rejected her, and soon she simply never returned.   I began to erase all memory of her, and life became easy, comfortable even.

I never understood what her touch meant to me until years had passed, and I looked into the mirror to see an old, tired man staring back.  The smile that had come so easily when I was younger now felt forced and awkward.  The years of comfort had softened all my lines, and I no longer felt invincible.  I was ashamed of this face that I wore, it had grown soft to hide the scars, and the eyes simply stared back.  There was no fire, no spark.  I had become a drone.

I knew full well that she had been the catalyst.  She was the sum total of my failures, my weakness, and my humility.  I had embraced her, accepted her, and made her mine, and in return she molded me into the man I wanted to become.

Age is a funny thing.  At some point you realize and accept your mortality, the fearlessness that youthful ignorance infuses you with is finally challenged, and you need to make a choice, destiny or self-determination.

If you choose self-determination, you recognize that you are the sole arbiter of your fate, and thus you may take greater steps to protect yourself from an untimely end through unnecessary risks.

Destiny commands that you accept your fate, at whatever time and place it may come, and with that the freedom of mind to engage, with reckless abandon, this playground we’re given.

Pain.

Instinctively we avoid her, but we forget that her opposite is numbness.  She reminds us of our weakness, humbles us by how much our fragile bodies can endure, and forces us to recognize that we aren’t judged by our words, but by our actions.

I awoke every morning thereafter and felt her absence hanging in the room.   Although I had gone so long without her, I hungered for her touch.  Apathy had smothered me, jealously guarding me from a life filled with failures, skinned knees, and bruised egos.  There was nothing left to do, but start moving.

I moved slowly at first, gasping as my lungs protested the cold November air.  I pushed hard up the mountain trail, but the heaving and retching of my lungs was too much to continue, and defeated, I crawled home.

Every day I moved, eventually convincing my lungs to process enough oxygen to keep my doughy frame in flight.  Each morning I awoke alone, the only witness to my solitude a pair of muddy runners, beckoning a return to their mountain playground.

Days passed, snow turned to rain, the mountain streams gave up their icicles for green mossy rocks, and my lungs filled with spring air, thick and heavy from fresh rain and damp earth.  I ran further, my breath no longer holding me back, my legs finding rhythm, my mind finding silence, and the endorphins started trickling slowly through me.  For a moment I forgot about the man who had hijacked my reflection, I forgot about being old, and I forgot about being tired.

I awoke the following day to find her, waiting.  No words were spoken, no explanations needed.  She simply lay with me as she had so often before.  Whereas before I had only noted her presence, I now revelled in it, like the essence of life itself was rekindled, sparking and sputtering beneath my skin with her every touch.   Tentatively, I turned to the trail-stained shoes to negotiate an off day, that I might lie with her longer, but the instinct was too strong, and in a moment I was in motion again.  Her touch lingered with me the entire day like the memory of a lover’s perfume, every thought of it was exhilarating.

She arrived every morning after that, and every day just as the last I thought of breaking my stride to lie with her, exhale through the pillows and let the morning take me slowly into the day.  Every day just as the last I awoke with her and went to the mountain.

Today, I know her like she knows me.  She is my constant companion, she is my muse.  She is the path to my best self, my greatest ambitions, and noblest pursuits.  She is my pain, and she is my concubine.

 

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