Posts Tagged storytelling

Be Your Own Test Pilot

Do you know where the phrase “pushing the envelope” came from? It’s what a test pilot does. An aircraft is designed to operate within a set of boundaries called the performance envelope. How fast can it fly? How high? How quickly can it take off, turn, and land? How much weight can it carry? These are the limits of what it can do.

But when a new airplane is built no one really knows exactly where those limits are. So test pilots fly the thing to find out. They take the aircraft to the edge of the performance envelope and see what happens. If all goes well, they push beyond the existing boundaries. They explore unknown territory to see what they can find.

If they have a good day, and land in one piece, they have successfully pushed the envelope to establish a new boundary. Now the plane can be flown faster or higher. So the next day they’ll attempt to push the envelope out another little bit. If they have another good day, they’ve made more progress and helped create a better product.

Eventually, bad things will begin to happen. Components or systems or people will begin to reach the limits of their own performance. Sometimes, things will break and the pilot will have a not so good day. With skill and maybe some luck, the plane will land safely. The team will study what they’ve learned. They’ll dial things back a bit and establish the edges of the performance envelope. The limits of where the thing can be operated safely and reliably.

But no one knows where those limits are until they begin to go beyond them. They don’t know how fast or high or far they can go until they try.

You can do this in your own life. In your business. You can be your own test pilot. How do you know where your limits are? Have you pushed your own envelope lately?

I used to be afraid of heights. Then one beautiful San Francisco day, I took a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Traffic hurtled by a few feet away. The bridge moved under my feet. The wind felt like it would sweep me over the rail. But nothing bad happened. I had a really good day. And now, I’m a lot less nervous about being in high places.

A few months ago Arlene Battishill, the president of GoGo Gear, rode her motorcycle the entire length of the Baja peninsula. She met up with some scruffy-looking guys in Southern California, crossed the border into Mexico, and rode all the way to Cabo San Lucas. Eleven hundred miles in five days. With some traveling companions she really didn’t know.

I’m pretty sure Arlene told us in the first days or maybe hours of that trip that this was by far the biggest ride she had ever attempted. She said she would be doing something she had never done before. She planned to push her own envelope.

We had a great trip. Arlene proved to be one of the best riders in the group. She was definitely the most fun and now she and I are good friends. Recently I read about how she jumped on her bike and rode north, to San Francisco; 575 miles in a long weekend. She shared a picture of herself and her motorcycle at the Golden Gate Bridge. I could feel the wind and smell the ocean. I wanted to tell her about the time I went there and came back different.

Arlene Battishill at the Golden Gate Bridge

Arlene celebrates another day of pushing the envelope.

I originally wrote this as a guest post on the GoGo Gear blog. When Arlene published it she also said some very nice things about me. Here’s her version.

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Success in a Tough Economy: Launch a Luxury Product in a Niche Market

Ready for some good news? How about a startup launched in 2009 selling something that no one can honestly say they need, manufactured in Southern California, based on a design from more than 50 years ago? Suggested retail on the product starts at about $5,000. Most buyers spend more than that by adding a lot of custom bling. And the company sells them as fast as they can make them, is looking to expand the model line, and is pursuing export opportunities.

Meet the California Scooter Company. They build a little motorcycle that is big fun, very cool, not cheap, and is extremely popular. The California Scooter is powered by a Honda-designed 150cc four-stroke, single-cylinder engine that can deliver 98 miles to a gallon of gas. It sports a lot of machined aluminum, stainless steel, and chrome. The brakes and electrical system are modern and efficient. It’s got an electric starter for reliability and a kick starter for some extra fun and panache.

Think of it as a sort of retro 1950s-style chopper that anyone can ride, is easy to maintain, and doesn’t cost as much as a decent car. The bikes are inspired by the Mustang, a small motorcycle built in Glendale, California from 1947 until 1963. That bike had the classic long and low chopper look and was so fast on the race track that it was banned from competition.

The founder of the California Scooter Company, Steve Seidner, bought an old Mustang intending to restore it and give it to his father as a gift. Instead he ended up creating a new American motorcycle company. The bikes and the company have been well received, are getting great media coverage, and are enjoying tremendous success.

Joe Berk rides his California Scooter

Joe Berk rides his California Scooter in the hills above Los Angeles

Some of that success is due to engaging their prospective customers with a robust social media marketing campaign. The company is very active and accessible in a lot of online motorcycle enthusiast communities. If you’ve spent any time in the forums, you know they can be brutal. Opinionated and uninformed haters can quickly bring the signal-to-noise ratio to near zero. You can get assaulted with charges that your product is overpriced offshore junk from people who have never seen it. And it can be tough to jump in and contribute without sounding like you are just trying to sell your stuff.

The California Scooter Company has managed to avoid all of that danger, rise above the chaos, and actually tell their story well. They make good use of Facebook and Twitter and the company blog has new, engaging content several times a week. The guy behind all of this social media success is Joe Berk, a business management consultant, author, and motorcycle enthusiast. Joe is a good friend of mine and that’s how I became such a big fan of the California Scooter Company.

So the bikes are cool, Steve’s got an awesome business, and Joe is fun to hang out with. He also likes adventure travel, especially in Baja, Mexico. In about a week, we plan to throw all of that together into a big mashup involving fish tacos, cactus, and cold beer. Joe has put together a little group ride to the tip of Baja and back, on 150cc California Scooters. And I’ve managed to get myself invited along. I’ll be driving a big, comfortable pickup truck with a really good air conditioner. And a fridge in the back seat for cold drinks.

We figure we’ll get some good pictures and have a lot of fun. We’ve got some interesting characters along on the ride and I think we’ll come home with a few good stories. I hope to share them with you when I get back.

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Your Own Public/Private Partnerships

The relationship is everything. You can have a fantastic product, offer a tremendous service, with prices that are beyond fair. But ultimately, the strength of your brand will come down to how well you play with others. This is especially true now that anyone, anywhere, can type a few words and have it ricochet around the halls of the interweb for all eternity.

You can create and leverage partnership opportunities that help build your brand and introduce you to people and organizations that would be tough to reach with a cold call. These opportunities are all around, you just have to be creative to find them.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from a friend I had met in a Tread Lightly Master Trainer class. He was organizing a weekend event for his Toyota FJ Cruiser four-wheel drive group and needed help staffing a booth to share the good word about outdoor ethics and responsible off-pavement recreation. A fun gig, a chance to get out into the backcountry, meet some new friends, and maybe drive a trail or two. I volunteered and we started planning.

The Tread Lighlty exhibit anchored by the XP Camper, with the Cobb grill in the forground.

The Tread Lightly exhibit, complete with a Cobb grill and anchored by the XP Camper.

My first challenge was dealing with the weather. The event meant two full days staffing a table in the middle of a dirt parking lot. If I didn’t want to end up with heatstroke I would need to find some sort of shade structure. I contacted my friends at XP Camper to find out if they might be interested in donating the use of their demonstration vehicle to be the base camp for my Tread Lightly exhibit. Not only would the camper and its attached awning provide shade, we would have a cool place to come indoors and a refrigerator for cold drinks, right in the booth. And XP Camper would get a chance to show off its new design to a whole new group of potential buyers. One quick conversation and I had an awesome plan to avoid sunstroke.

Next problem was how to stand out and draw foot traffic to the booth. There would be lots of cool stuff to see and a lot of activities over the weekend. If I wanted any of the attendees to come to my exhibit, I was going to have to get creative.

Enter the scent of grilled meat. A most powerful attractant for outdoor-folk.

I planned to set up a small portable grill and cook up some tidbits of something tasty. With luck, the wind would spread the scent around and draw folks in. I’d offer them a bite to eat then deliver my pitch. For some time now, I’ve carried a Cobb portable grill on my trips and used it to cook up some fantastic meals. It’s a great product and would be perfect for this event. And, coincidentally, at this year’s Overland Expo, I happened to meet the folks who import the Cobb grill into the US. So I contacted them to say I’d be showing off their product and ask if they wanted to donate something toward the event’s big Saturday night raffle. That conversation went extremely well and I had managed to not only score a cool prize for my friend’s car club meet, I had also gotten Cobb named as one of the sponsors.

The event was a huge success for all concerned. We spread the Tread Lightly message to a very receptive audience, we showed off a cool new camper design, we gave away a very nice prize, and we all had a great time. Moreover, this was a chance to build on some new relationships and set the stage for future collaborations.

It’s a sort of connect-the-dots kinda thing. And it’s all good.

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A Teachable Moment

A few days ago, I came upon a small softroader of some kind attempting a pretty challenging hillclimb on a dirt two-track just off the paved highway. No forward progress, lots of wheelspin. The car would occasionally get a bit sideways. I stopped to watch, knowing that a failed hillclimb can easily lead to a rollover. Didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but figured I might be able to lend some sort of assistance.

After a bit, I began walking up the hill toward the stuck car. The driver put her head out the window and very politely asked me if I was wanting to drive up the road she was currently blocking. I said I was there to see if I could help her out in any way.

We talked a bit and I suggested she try gently backing down the hill while I spotted her. We got the car down without much more trouble than a bit of wheel slip.

Turns out she works for an engineering firm that is doing an environmental assessment of a proposed cell tower site. Her goal was to drive to the site on the other side of the hill a couple of miles away and about 500 feet higher.

I confirmed with her that she had permission to drive on what I believe is private property. And I suggested that perhaps her car was not the best choice for that particular challenge. Then I offered to drive her to the site in my truck. She accepted.

Heading up the hill, I mentioned the benefits of low range gearing, bigger tires, and locking differentials. Also experience and training. I talked about how a more capable vehicle can tackle a tougher obstacle while minimizing impact on the land. I said that the reason I stopped in the first place was concern for her safety and possible damage to the landscape. I told her about Tread Lightly and responsible back country travel.

We found the cell site, she took a few pictures, we had a nice chat, and I drove her back down the hill to her car. I gained a couple new pinstripes but we never spun a tire.

All in all a nice experience and completely unexpected.

Would you have done anything differently?

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Put on the Uniform

How do you get ready for a presentation? A meeting with a prospective customer? A day exhibiting at a trade show? You probably double-check your materials, make sure you have plenty of business cards, and confirm the time and place. Do you put on a uniform?

Uniforms are a powerful tool, common to most cultures. Think about the person who delivers your mail, or packages, or a speeding ticket. They all wear a uniform. It gives them authority. Without the uniform, would you take a cop seriously? How about an airline pilot?

What’s the uniform in your field?

When I worked as a back country guide, our summer uniform was a green company polo shirt, desert or woodland camouflage BDU trousers, a company baseball cap, and a handheld two-way radio. In winter we wore black snow pants and a red and black snowmobile jacket. None of our guests dressed like that and it was obvious who was running the show.

Asked to speak at a presentation to visitors I thought I might dress up a bit better than my “work” clothes. So I pulled out a new polo shirt and some fresh khaki trousers. So did everyone else who presented that day. I looked just like every other talking head trying to sell something to tourists. I didn’t give much of a presentation and I doubt if anyone paid any attention to me at all.

The next week I went back wearing my field uniform, including a big knife and my radio in a pouch on my belt. All the other presenters still wore their khakis and polos, since that was their uniform. I stood out from the crowd and my audience listened to me.

More importantly, I was wearing my uniform rather than someone else’s. I felt comfortable and relaxed.

I had been afraid of speaking in public and it affected my performance. Now, in my comfortable everyday uniform, I could easily play the role that I was supposed to. I wasn’t a pitchman selling something. I was an experienced back country guide telling visitors about the beautiful scenery all around them. About the place where I got to spend 200 days a year. About the adventures I had enjoyed and wanted to share with them.

I felt like the hit of the party. It doesn’t matter whether that was true or not; I felt like it. My audience not only listened carefully and asked great questions, they wanted to hear more. To share in my adventures. To buy what I was selling.

As the last presenter finished speaking the audience broke up. Many of them came to ask me more questions; several wanted to book an adventure with my outfit. I pulled out my cell phone, called the home office, and made their reservations. Our company had been speaking at these events for years and had never before booked a trip right on the spot. I felt like the king of the world.

So the uniform worked for me. More importantly, it worked for my company and my customers. It helped them to decide to buy what I had to sell. Pretty powerful tool, no?

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the uniform was in helping me get over my fear of speaking in public. Before, I had been a guy doing something I didn’t want to do and knew I wasn’t very good at. After, I realized that I was actually playing a role. Out on the trail, where I wore my uniform every day, my guests expected me to be an expert guide, confident to lead a trip, and experienced in handling whatever the back country threw at us. And I was that person. I did that job every day and I was good at it. When I wore my adventure travel guide uniform, I was in character. I was ready to play the role I had signed up for.

So what’s your uniform? Is it the right one for what you need to do? Does it send the right message to others?

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