Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sharing Bread

There are a lot of people who can only talk about a business. They can’t even generate $1.

There are so many people who know how to charge people for comments and time. They can’t even produce one thing – not even inspiration.

Even more so, the words “honest business” would be hard to apply to any company.

The word "company" comes from Latin, symbolizing people being such good friends that you would share bread with them. Con = together. Panis = bread. To go along with one and share bread. To accompany.

More than one month has passed since I heard a woman’s story that humbled me.

I can’t stop thinking about it.

Salon - A French concept of a conversation in a room to elevate minds - outlook, knowledge, and understanding.

I didn’t know her story going into a Salon where I was a keynote speaker. So was she.

I was about to give a speech about Arts Patronage – how it is possible online for people to commission work from people who inspire them. Paying something beyond $0.99 to an Artist. Commissioning an inspired project.

I wish for a photo of an eagle flying over the Lagoon in Stanley Park of Vancouver. I will pledge $...obo. A birthday gift for...

For that Salon, in Halifax, we launched a prototype to register desired gifts--works of art, or projects--online.

Next in Vancouver, we are launching an online food gifting service for Starving Artists and Causes.

We are preparing for New York where people one day will go to an inspired music café to leave a gift for someone to pick up.

Someone you know left a gift for you @ .... click here for details. There might be $20 cash for your music or dinner.

Sound impressive?

* * *

I was looking into her shadow

I was humbled by another story. By a woman. By a farmer from the country. By someone ditched by her husband. By someone ditched by her business partner, who left behind $167,000 in spoiled product (she mortaged everything and had $2000 left). By someone who turned down a $64,000 a year job as a chef. By someone who helped Artists. By someone who was turned down by a midwifery school for being too old. By someone who travels more than an hour to St. Lawrence market on Saturdays to sell cheese. By someone who wasn’t bankable. By a Mennonite.

She cussed a few times during her speech – her words simple, authentic and humorous. For people in the city.

Online and offline she got people to pre-pay for cheese yet to be made. She got people to subscribe. She generated $250,000 in subscriptions. Her business now generates more than $1 million in revenue at a profit of $150,000. She donated $15,000 to Doctors Without Borders.


As a business reporter many moons ago, and as an advisor to investors for many ventures…I can honestly say, I have never seen this before.

She did exactly what I was trying to do for inspired Art, but with cheese. For $200, you got a $250 voucher for any cheese she made in the next five years.

I want to note company shareholders are also called subscribers. She changed the meaning of subscription. She sold “futures.” Investors were consumers.

550 subscribers generated $250,000 to fund cheese next spring from five different milks.

In some ways, she was also selling prepaid Art. She saw her cheese-making as Art.

I don’t often say give it up for a business model. But today I do. I first heard it on October 8, 2009. One month later, I still can’t stop thinking about it.

She cast more than one shadow

It’s not even just the business model of Obamaesque public financing. It’s not even the economic efficiencies she created. This is a model for local produce, local foodies and local business.

She called it Community Shared Agriculture (CSA). In the crowd, randomly some of her customers were even there.

Chevalier n. ~ a distinguished cheese expert. A designation awarded by Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage in France. An equivalent to a wine sommelier.

"Pecorino Toscano originates in Italy ( pecora is “sheep” in Italian). It's a pressed, cooked cheese with a natural rind whose history dates back more than 2,500 years. The Monforte Toscano, which has been aged six months, has a rustic, mottled rind that brings to mind an artifact just unearthed. Its paste is a pale straw colour, with warm tea tones near the rind. It exudes a pastoral well-being that engages the senses before you even take a bite. The texture is dense with some crumble, but remains moist. The flavours are soft and have an earthy depth, a sour cream richness and a subtle, sweet complexity with a bit of meatiness at the rind."

Her name is Ruth Klahsen from Monforte Cheese. Before this, she cooked for a theater in Stratford, earning $32,000 a year plus benefits. She turned down a 100% pay raise to start her business. That’s double pay. And for all her staff too. Before this, she could cook duck confit for $5.95 for Artists to eat well. “I felt like my art was helping their art. And if you double my salary if f—cks it all up (crowd laughs)…it messes it up because it means the confit of duck is $12.95.”

PS To be my own devil's advocate, Ruth really gave me a chance to contrast our business with hers. She creates an asset (cheese)…something tangible and tactile, that a buyer can taste. It’s also inspiring. Our business has less up front cost. But in our model, Art is harder to imagine, harder to taste, less tangible or tactile, arguably, less stable to make. But Art does have the potential to create more inspiring stories. To make things beautiful. It’s key for us to highlight these stories. Stories like Ruth's.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The (Un)Conventional

Convention is a comfort zone.

Convention is status quo.

Convention is recognizable. It's familiar.

Sometimes convention is only a probability.

* * *

Everytime i come to New York, i ponder the wisdom of convention.

So many new successful acts, concepts and ventures lack convention. Some new things might invent a new way of fusing convention. But for the most part, the lack of convention is what resonates.

In life, i often get advice - business or personal. But i often wonder if i accept it, is it because i like it, i am comfortable with it, or if someone less entrepreneural requires it.

I always wonder, will it even work?

The proof is not in the pudding. Magic works more often than convention.

More often than not, convention doesn't apply to everything or everyone. Convention doesn't work. It's merely a language we understand.

* * *

I see when convention works. It stabilizes, it communicates, it carries logic, it applies in theory. But convention doesn't stand out. Convention is stale.

It's statistical, to think, it might work, in this situation. But convention is not a guarantee. Not even in a game of baseball where there's a fixed set of rules. You can't always count on it. The unconventional needs to help a team win.

* * *

The loudest voices in life often carry the sound of convention. It makes what is unconventional truly refreshing. I think we felt this with Obama.

Voices of convention can also sometimes be voices of discrimination. When what people understand is the only way - it doesn't work for people who are different.

Convention might be made to rule. But rules might not apply to you and I. Rules apply to the rulers. People like them.

Voices often say things only applicable to them.

* * *

Convention is copied. Copying something already done. Something someone else did. Something you once did.

At its best, it can only be trendy, with an exciting new interpretation...perhaps you perform convention better than before...well, maybe now you're bordering on an unconventional cover song.

In a technology business, i often get sent links to read. It is amazing how this once formed one third of my inbox as a CEO. I've had to tell people i dont read links of what someone else has already done. I used to...but it never helped.

In my life, convention has never worked.

It's the unconventional that breaks through. It starts to get dangerous for me with investors and customers. They only understand convention. Convention means less risk to them.

But as someone who steers a ship to go somewhere new, i know deep in my heart, convention only causes a new venture to stay put. It brings nothing new, or exciting, to fans we depend on for success. It's stagant. It might not even be fully functional.

But when money is at stake, so much convention is expected to minimize a dire sense of risk. Music labels start to like formula. Reality shows start to grow like weeds.

* * *
Convention is lazy. Convention avoids what may be true, what may need to be done. Convention is what someone else says is your self-help.

The unfortunate thing is that not everyone benefits from convention and it's hard to measure who does. It's a format off-the rack, tailored for specific types of people.

i argue criminals are more successful than authorities who base things on convention. Criminals are forced to be unconventional to survive. Successful criminals aren't caught when authorities think conventionally. They have to think outside the box.

* * *

Some people are more privileged in the status quo to bear more fruit from convention. Some people are more resourced for conventions. Some people are more accepted with conventions.

But convention doesnt make you think, it keeps the status quo. Convention keeps you where you are.

In New York, there is always something new someone didn't think of, something that works, that makes you say, Cool.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tom's Diner, Will Travel

If you’ve ever wondered where a song can go, this story might amaze you.

I will soon be in Tom's Diner in New York City.

I want to go there, sit by a window pane, and re-write this song. Mirror it, for November, today, 28 years later. Write what I see. Write what I hear. Wonder what I will read in the New York Post.

This well-traveled place was first memorialized in a song that made music history.

Suzanna Vega's Tom's Diner was written on Broadway at 112th Street, in Tom's Restaurant, a Columbia University hangout in New York City.

Faraway, in my small Ontario town, north of Toronto, there's a place of the same name. This song never leaves me.

Somehow unlike any other song, Tom's Diner was reincarnated many times, in many forms, and later started a digital music revolution.

Vega sat by a window in Tom's to write this song. She was inspired by a photographer who said he could see his entire life through a window pane, in the third person.

Vega actually forgot what year she wrote it (she thought 1982)...but words she sung of "a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," gave a clue, and so did "turning to the horoscope / and looking for the funnies."

In 1981-82, only the New York Post had a horoscopes, comics and prominently covered a story of an actor who had died.

William Holden won an Oscar in 1954 for his best actor performance in Sunset Boulevard

He was drunk, slipped on a carpet, banged his head on a night table, and bled to death on November 12, 1981. He was discovered November 16. His story was in Tom's Diner on November 18.

The "bells of the cathedral," Vega heard from Tom's Diner, refer to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Gothic architecture, 1892
(redesigned many times)

Amsterdam @ 112th

Tom's Diner was first released in a magazine of all places: A January 1984 analog insert inside Fast Folk Musical Magazine. What format i don't know.

Vega wrote Tom's Diner for piano but sung it a cappella because she couldn't play piano yet. The song was then re-released in 1987 on her platinum album Solitude Standing.

I bought this in cassette tape - in days when female vocalists were coming to the forefront

Before this, she performed Tom's Diner at the Prince's Trust concert, without instruments in 1986, to confront her stage fright. She vowed if this song was poorly received, she would walk off stage and never sing it again live. She took a chance against her fear, and it worked.

If there's good karma to extend a song's life, Tom's Diner is the poster child.

Tom's Diner would later become the "Mother of the MP3"...Karlheinz Brandenburg used it to develop the MP3:

"I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm...somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing `Tom's Diner.' I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice."

The digital music inventor tested Tom's Diner repeatedly to refine the scheme, "making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega's voice."

Then in 1990, this song fell into the secretive hands of two underground DJs in England known as DNA. They put the beats of Soul II Soul behind it, to remix it, for underground performances.This was done without permission.

Instead of being sued, DNA was offered compensation to release this underground remix which became a major hit, selling 3 million copies. Money was exchanged clandestine by suitcase via intermediaries. The identity of DNA was not initially publicly known. Two music men from Bath thought they would face legal consequences if identified.

Later REM and Billy Bragg covered it in their one-off band Bingo Hand Job.

Sometimes i think the inspiration of this song will transfer eternally from one creative force to another.

Vega, a Spanish Harlem and later Upper West Side resident, was once a regular at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, where Lady Gaga says she used to work as a teenager. Lady Gaga was born five years after Tom's Diner.

Tom's Restaurant is in a building owned by Columbia University, and also houses NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Tom's has been operated by the Greek-American Minasizoulis family since the 1950s. Most of the world knows Tom's via Seinfeld's fictional Monk's Cafe (exterior). "Tom" was deleted from Seinfeld to avoid paying royalties.

Early Seinfeld episodes showed the word "Tom's."

Tom's Diner, Will Travel, was written in a web cafe in Toronto on College Street, @$10/day, east of Ossington. Next to me, a man says he is about to take a bus to New York. On a computer, he finds a room, for $22 on the Upper West Side. A "dormitory bunk."

Today Al Gore was signing books at Barnes and Noble

A man surnamed Noble jumped from the 10th floor of an NYU library.