As we’re about to bookend this one, I feel the urge to reflect on and share some of what I have learned in 2020. I also want to include a dash of what I am hopeful for.
There is no way I could open any commentary on the year with anything but a direct acknowledgment of how impactful and scary COVID and its potential lasting effects continue to be. I watched a handful of people I know contract COVID this year. Thankfully, all recovered. I feel very lucky for this and my heart goes out to so many who have lost someone close or been affected directly.
Also, most of my business engagements and companies have been nimble enough to navigate their way through 2020’s obstacles. I know I have also been fortunate in this respect when so many in our country have not. Many people and businesses are still in precarious situations and in need of help from individuals and the government. I hope we all keep that top of mind and continue to lend our hands, voices and wallets where we can.
That said, welcome to the “detailed breakdown” of my personal 2020:
This year I watched the for-profit B2C companies I’m involved with or invested in brace for a tsunami in March, only to end up surfing the COVID demand wave to record growth and performance to date. From companies at scale like RevZilla and CycleGear (Comoto) to startups like Trade Coffee (which was my lone angel check this year), once they found their footing it has been wild to see teams adapt to remote work and leaders engage to bridge communication and proximity gaps. I have a very much “talent in the building” leadership style so it’s been as impressive as it is uncomfortable to watch some of my friends lead their orgs through all of this remote operational change. They worked with the limited tools at their disposal to ultimately survive and then thrive. My reservations about remote work, at least in the short term, have been nullified. It can be done because it had to be done. Thank god COVID hit in 2020 instead of 1990. I have no idea what happens without digital communication and video tools at the ready. It will also be really interesting to see what a new normal in terms of company ops and consumer preference looks like post-COVID. What’s a step function and what’s cyclical? More on that later.
As a board memeber of The Skatepark Project (formerly Tony Hawk Foundation), I helped round out a multi-year process to rename, re-strategize and assist with the search for a new Executive Director. All hard things that would have been better finalized during non-COVID peacetime. It reaffirmed my belief, however, that in most cases, thoughtful yet difficult choices typically benefit from being made sooner rather than later, granted the timing doesn’t create existential risk for the organization. I was also so impressed with how genuinely and gracefully the outgoing ED, Miki V, supported the retrenching and leadership transition during this uber stressful time.
As a first-year trustee of The Franklin Institute, an impressive org that didn’t have a preexisting digital model to ride the post-March COVID wave, I watched strong leadership at the operational and board level have very difficult conversations about team, budget and an ugly list of war-time choices that included reducing the workforce. I did my best to help contribute to a solution to hopefully weather this 100-year storm while also furthering healthy conversations surrounding an evolving biz model and a brand that is about to turn 200 years old. We have a hunch about what a new museum normal may look like, but the timeline is still TBD and sadly tied to externalities. I learned watching diligent leaders make methodical, objective and painful decisions while balancing a stiff upper lip with great empathy. The Institute is in great hands. It will emerge stronger. Larry D and team are doing an excellent job. Ben would be so proud.
In early March, my close friend David Bookspan and I launched an informal non-profit endeavor called SavePhillyEats to help Philly bars and restaurants generate revenue during the first COVID shutdowns. The project grew into a national-ish org called SaveTheEats, which after a successful run, we sunset in July when establishments were reopening. We had a volunteer team of close to 30, a presence in 8 cities and an impact of roughly $2.5 million in revenue by the end. I also heard from a number of prominent chefs that we helped amplify the early needs of the food landscape in the local media. I even managed to play F-list Jerry Lewis for the live digital telethon called GivePhillyEats we put on jointly with the impressive Fuel the Fight team.
We validated our thesis that we could be significantly more helpful to our Philly food landscape by donating our time and effort versus just donating financially to a relief fund. The whole project cost around $50,000. I was blown away by the level of support we had from volunteers to part-time talent to chefs willing to contribute to the push, make intro’s and spread the word. What a generous bunch, especially the chefs and restauranteurs, as they were under direct fire and watching their businesses slip but still lent cycles to the greater good. Special shout outs to Chef Jen Carrol & Marc Vetri for their leadership. I still really hope that the federal government can do something to offer direct relief to the national food landscape. To date, too little has been offered at the federal and state level.
Additionally, it was my first stint truly operating since I left RevZilla in early 2017. I learned that I still compartmentalize as poorly as I did during the Zilla years, even as an experienced operator. My assumption was that I might be able to be more balanced in navigating my next leadership role, but I was not. Committing to leading an organization is as addictive, humbling and as all-consuming as it ever was. I was wrong to believe I would lead differently, more efficiently or within a self-imposed 50-hour-a-week constraint. This experience, juxtaposed against the ages of my kids, actually gives me pause about taking another founder or C-suite role in in the next few years. I think my goals for great husband and dad of 5 and great company leader have proved to be mutually exclusive at this stage of my young family’s life.
I also learned to truly appreciate the differences and unique difficulty in managing and incentivizing a cause-driven org versus a for-profit company. Jim Collins’ Good to Great for the Social Sectors was spot on (not shocking). When the balance sheet is skinny and the financial incentives lighter, different tools are necessary to keep productivity and speed to market maximized in the non-profit space. Team engagement with vision, mission and values is everything. I gained further respect, empathy and appreciation for non-profit leaders I support. (I’m looking at you Miki V, Larry D, Benjamin B, Bill H, Jen M and Tom V)
When we proudly sunset SaveTheEats in July as restaurants opened again, I was ready to tap back in at home. I had neglected (yeah, it’s the right word) Tara and the kids for almost five months. We all agreed that part of our family’s goal this year was to help others where we could, and donating most of me while Tara single parented for a few months was a huge part of it, but we all really felt it. When I reemerged they were all showing the wear and virtual school was still a train wreck, as well. I tossed up an autoresponder with the plan of being a “quick no” on new consulting, board work and deals while I shifted my primary focus back to family again.
The interesting thing is that the autoresponder went up in July and now has persisted 5 months later. Being intellectually honest, I have found very few things harder than trying to do appropriate deal diligence or build a new relationship over Zoom – so I have burnered most new inbound. I’m curious if it’s just me and my personality type or if other folks are feeling the same lack of attention span in the current construct. For the first time in my professional career, I’ve paused my network. I have also steering interactions toward casual phone calls versus seeing people on Zoom (while I sit up straight without fidgeting as my LED ring light beams the beginning of a migraine from its tripod behind my monitor). Time will tell for the autoresponder and its potential effect on my post-COVID opportunities.
One bright spot this year has been the high percentage of my friends and family who showed me they were who I believed they were. I feel lucky that I have not really been shocked during any family or biz interaction, finding out in the moment that someone I care about is a supporter of things I view as fundamentally wrong. Things that undermine our democracy, decency or equal rights. I actively broke connection with a few people in my larger sphere, but there was no surprise there. I long suspected where they stood before 45 (I won’t even say his name) tried to make racism and lying cool and mainstream. My heart goes out to all my family and friends who have had to navigate those tough dynamics with greater numbers of people close to them. It makes me sad that people I care about felt the real grief of losing friends and sometimes family this year – without anyone actually dying.
Another surprisingly bright spot this year was some of the more formal online learning I opted into. Other than the random Khan Acadamy or YouTube video, I’d never done any formal or paid online learning. I got an email last spring to join Prof. Scott Galloway’s first-ever Digital Strategy Sprint. On a whim, I signed up for the $700 two-week all-digital course. (I wrote about it here.) The course was so good I then followed up with his 3-week course on Brand Strategy in September. Like most things, you get out what you put in and each course took about 13-15 hours of total time, but they felt like a steal. Both subjects have been foundational for most of my career but I’d peg the coursework and concepts at least ~30% net new for me. I always love finding new frameworks and fundamentals to fill in the gaps of my “learned while operating” playbook. It also shuts up the little impostor syndrome head-voice for a time. I’m going to do their first Product Strategy Spring slated for January and I APPLAUD the fact that anyone can apply to these courses. 10% of the enrollments are also given as scholarships to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it.
A final and surprising side note on the year relates to lifestyle and fitness. Basically, on a dare I committed to 90 days vegetarian on Oct. 25th, 2019. I wrote about it here, but never wrote the follow up post. Now, 14 months later, I am actually still mostly vegetarian, although COVID and the holiday season has made it a bit tougher (Turkey and ham are delicious). I hover at about 95% vegetarian on any given week and am surprised that it’s been so easy to maintain. So many things are so easy to swap. My LDL cholesterol has remained 50 points lower than when I made the switch and I have not seen any part of the 6-8-pound dad-gut that showed up in mid-2019. #yeet
On top of that, I am 10 weeks into a 23-week training plan for a late March half marathon, which is actually prep for a Mt. Rainier climb in July. I’m not a runner or a climber and I get cold easily. It’s been a learning curve. I blame my friend Tom Vogl, CEO of The Mountaineers, for all of this. “I’ve never climbed a mountain, why not climb the second highest peak in North America? Sure. Sounds great.” Who doesn’t like a good old BHAG every once in a while? (I have posted about this fiasco on IG a few times in more detail including my training plan – posts #1, #2.)
So with all that in the rearview (deep breath), here’s what I’m hoping for in 2021.
I hope that ’21 brings a political quieting to some degree. I hope the White House can be reasonable over the next 4 years and keep the tweets to a minimum. I’m exhausted. The car wrecks have to stop and traffic needs to start moving again – even with the expectations of less-than-perfect results, lower TV ratings (gasp) and a boring presidency. I hope that a constructive and unifying voice can make moderate decisions that become less polarizing for both sides of the aisle. If I want reality TV I should be watching Bravo, not CNN. I hope we can find more moderation and compromise as a country moving forward. I hope that the racists, sexists, and supremacists are all marginalized, ignored by the mainstream media and sent back to their dark corners.
I hope organizations find a remote work balance post COVID. Maximizing the benefits but avoiding the potential pitfalls. Many people got back the time they’d spent on long commutes and found a better quality of life and family as a result. I hope they get to keep most of that benefit. Companies also found new access to and seamless integration of distributed talent, which could reside anywhere geographically. Most companies also realized that remote management at scale now puts some previously untouchable expense structure up for debate. I won’t be shocked if some companies that realized certain functions don’t need to be physically present begin to further arbitrage those functions from distributed U.S. teams to much cheaper remote international functions. I also won’t be surprised if some companies, under the flag of “remote first” as a proposed benefit, begin to aggressively eliminate offices and other community-related costs, which over the long term provide temples to teamwork, culture and brand along with a social benefit to employees at certain stages of life. My biggest concern is that the allure of time-efficient remote work will eliminate the moments where teams build trust, solidarity and engagement by actually getting to know one another – in person.
As I noted earlier, virtual work has felt very transactional for me. It’s been limiting in terms of developing new relationships beyond the immediate “topic of discussion” or explicit need. When team members don’t know each other, how will they trust each other? How will they react in moments of uncertainty? How will they efficiently resolve conflict? How will companies create a cultural fabric that keeps people engaged, feeling part of a larger cause and preventing key talent from leaving for the next company that offers them the same bedroom office but with a 15% raise? Like so many things in life, the best approach will probably be some hybrid of the middle, but I fear that some companies will shed talent, productivity and overall strength in the medium to long term by attempting to maximize the potential short-term savings of the virtual construct, even when the COVID crisis ends.
I hope that small businesses, including restaurants, get a bailout or something along those lines. So many big businesses have gotten bailouts during my adult life. At this moment, even in the face of potential inflation and further national debt, I’m a vote for a small biz bailout over a loan program. Recently people have asked me, “Can you bring back SavePhillyEats” and sadly my belief is that it won’t move the needle. At this stage, it’s bringing a knife to a gunfight. Small biz and restaurants just need more. I’m not in favor of big government nor am I in favor of adding to our already mounting national debt in perpetuity, but I hope something can be done in Washington to offer financial relief directly to the businesses that have been forced to close or operate at a greatly reduced capacity to stop the spread of the virus. They are doing their part. We need to protect them. My front-row seat to the restaurant industry this year has been heartbreaking. This is an industry fueled by passion and love with already thin margins. We all need to keep eating out and ordering takeout (without using DoorDash or UberEats if possible), but my hunch is that’s not enough to get the bulk of restaurants and small biz through the next six months, either.
Lastly, I hope more Americans buy into putting the safety of others ahead of their own immediate personal desires. At many other moments since 1776, it’s been a theme dramatically more embraced than we see today. We all need to protect ourselves, but we also must be making sure we’re not helping spread the virus. Even if you think you or your family are not in danger, wear a mask, social distance, don’t dine indoors with people who don’t live with you. The same thing goes for the vaccine. Don’t wait and see how it goes when you become eligible. Go get it. Show your patriotism by being first in line in protecting your fellow Americans and set that example. The number of people I have heard say, “What are you gonna do?” or “I have to live my life” relating to the holidays, vacations or other non-work choices makes me sad.
I hope people wake up and realize it’s not about them. It’s bigger than them. It’s about our fellow countrymen and women who are at risk and it’s about collectively making a reasonable effort to be part of the solution to help protect them and arrive at the finish line sooner. We can’t be that selfish. If you are in a position of influence, I implore you to set a good example and be vocal. If you are in a position to help others, please extend your hand. It matters. That is what makes America great.
So Goodbye 2020! even if it’s because all the other words I wrote before I arrived at goodbye were profane.
The optimist in me says that 2021 has to be better.