Analysis / Keil Hubert: Spread the Word

Keil Hubert: Spread the Word

I’d very much like to infect you with something wonderful.

I was waiting to order dinner earlier this evening, mulling over how I wanted to write this week’s column. I didn’t really have anything that I wanted to say; my friend and mentor James L Harris died on 10th December 2012. I went to his memorial service yesterday, and that pretty much took the wind out of my sails. Every topic that I tried to grapple with slipped away from me. I was considering giving up on the deadline and asking Gareth (Biz Tech’s web editor) for a respite when I saw Honda’s new TV commercial pop up on a monitor on the other side of the restaurant, and everything kind of fell into place.

Honda’s new sales line is “Things can always be better.” It’s a darned fine idea in its own right, and it makes for a catchy commercial. It showcases innovation in a positive, encouraging tone. That resonated for me, but not for the reasons that Honda’s marketeers probably expected. All of the images and stories and memories I’d been cycling though about the decade I’d worked for and with James crystalized thanks to that message from Honda, because it so closely mirrored his own outlook. There’s a significant point of divergence between the two outlooks, though, and that’s what I want to discuss today.

The week after James died, I wrote a column about memes [1] and memetic contagion. I had no idea at that time that James had passed away. I hadn’t known about his failing health. In fact, I’d been trying for a month to get ahold of him about a CTO position I’d been approached for that he would have been a perfect fit for. I think James would have embraced the challenge of starting up another business.

I first met James when I was interviewing with Yahoo! Broadcast back in the summer of 2000. The Engineering Services department at Yahoo!’s Dallas division (formerly Broadcast.com) wanted to stand up an internal consulting practice, and had hired James away from Lucent to build everything from scratch. James hired me, and we rolled out Yahoo!’s “Webcast Infrastructure Services” consulting products in January 2001. It was a great time to be in the tech sector.

Later on, after Yahoo! corporate shut down most of the Dallas office, I helped James start his own small consulting company (Kingdom Consulting LLC [2]). He specialized in developing technology solutions for small and medium churches. Later on, he secured an angel investor to finance bringing to market a new consulting venture called “Streaming Authority.” James founded SA as its president and chief consultant; I came on board to work with him again in May 2000 to run the back end of his new business.[3]

We had every reason to be optimistic back in those days. Streaming Authority had an undisputed lead in its market niche. After getting the new outfit formally incorporated, we sent James off to be the keynote speaker at an e-Business conference in Gibraltar. Even with the beginning of the collapse of the dot com bubble, things were generally looking up. Our first formal meeting with the corporate attorney to finalize the business creation files was 12th September 2001 … and despite all that was going mad in the world, James was still optimistic. The future looked grim in those days, but James never gave up hope for a better world.

After I was mobilized to military service in October 2001, James ran Streaming Authority largely by himself. He pursued new clients, sketched possible service offerings, and kept his finger on the pulse of the industry even while it collapsed and burned. By the time I was released from the airport security mission in April 2002, our entire market had effectively evaporated. Well over half of the companies who had been active in streaming media were simply gone. The dot com bubble gave its last gasps. Companies went into panic mode worldwide and simply stopped spending. Locally, massive tech companies filed for bankruptcy protection and laid off tens of thousands of workers.

James never lost hope.

Even after he performed an orderly shutdown of Streaming Authority and Kingdom Consulting, and even after he went back to the commercial sector as an IT manager for CBRE in 2006, he’d still meet with me regularly to discuss new ideas for products, services and opportunities. We’d meet at whichever Starbucks was midway between our respective offices and spend three to four hours white boarding ideas.

When I visited his memorial service yesterday, I noticed how many photographs and artifacts his famly had that showed James’s love of science fiction stories. He was a huge Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Wars fan. His brother had photos of James dressed up in garb from theBattlestar Galactica re-boot, and the Stargate TV series, and the all-too-brief Firefly show and film. He loved conventions, loved re-watching great stories on film, and was quick to weave a pop culture reference into an otherwise dry business discussion. That “fit” with what I remembered of him in a business setting.

The story I’ve told most often over the years about how James worked was the ‘pet food proposal.’ One dreary winter morning, a sales weasel [4] came running down the hall to Engineering Services and demanded that James drop what he was doing in order to come salvage a badly-flubbed sales pitch.

We knew that our streaming video and audio services sales force had recently been “empowered” to start selling other Yahoo! branded products.[5] This particular salesman had decided that selling one-off webcasts at US$2,000 each wasn’t nearly as profitable as selling the new “My Corporate Yahoo!” modular intranet product for US$100,000 each.

So, he’d asked a planeload of executives from a FORTUNE 500 company to come to Dallas for a pitch … for a “product” that they couldn’t see any value in. The salesman’s product kung-fu was weak, the audience was angry at having had their time wasted, and we were likely to lose all of this customer’s business as a result.James would normally be content to let a bad salesman hang himself, but the scope of the deal was a matter of professional pride for Our Side. I watched, amused, as James waited for the salesman to run out of breath and then said (Buddha-like):

“I’ll come save this pitch for you on two conditions: first, you’ll introduce me to the customers and apologize for me not being able to join the meeting on time. Then you will sit down, and shut up. You will agree with anything I say, speak only when I speak to you, and in all other respects keep your mouth shut. If you violate these terms, I will immediately walk out of the room and leave you.”

The salesman agreed on the spot.[6] The two of them walked around the corner to the conference room where the executives were corralled, and the salesman introduced James to the glowering suits. I followed, staying just out of sight so I could watch the drama.

James smiled and went straight to the white board to secure a dry erase marker. He was supremely confident and graciously warm to the crowd. He apologized for having been delayed and begged their forgiveness for having left them alone with a salesman (they laughed). He spoke earnestly about how he used their products at home for his own dog and how grateful he was that their company put so much care into making a consistently good product. He asked them about their own pets. Then he thanked them all for being so interested in the continued well-being of their customers.

The executives – who had been warming quickly to the soft-spoken Texas gentleman – blinked in surprise. They thought that they’d been brought to Dallas to hear a (clumsy) proposal about another daft web-thing. Without acknowledging the three hundred pound sales weasel in the room, James deftly “re-capped” for them how the Yahoo! portal product was a really innovate idea on their part to build an online community – not for their own workers, but for the consumers who used their products.

James told them a story about the close-knit community they were creating, where pet owners could communicate with one another about their pets, their lives, their problems and their solutions. By hosting the community, this company would definitely be building tremendous customer loyalty and would reap massive amounts of consumer information in the process, but that was all a trivial side effect. The real benefit, he opined, was the community itself, and the joy it would bring to so many millions of people.

He walked out of that meeting three hours later to applause, hearty handshakes and earnest warm wishes from a half-dozen millionaires who were genuinely moved by James’s presentation. We never bothered to learn if the sale was completed; what was important to us was that something positive and productive had been championed. That random and completely-unplanned encounter with a pet food company was illustrative of James’s ethos:

It’s all well and good to believe that things will get better. Nothing will get better until youtake action to make things better.  

James understood that these people were not just faceless businessmen. He made sure to confirm his hypothesis that each was of them was a pet owner as well. They loved their cats, dogs, birds and what-not and felt a minor bond with one another based on that shared world-view. James worked with that knowledge to tease out what he suspected they all had in common: they loved their children and spouses, and they loved their pets. They wanted what was best for their families. Most importantly, they wanted to belong to a community of some kind. They were hungry for tribe.

These people didn’t need another shiny product. They needed a space to connect with others of a similar persuasion. Some place they could go to be accepted. A place where they could understand what was going on. Where they could reveal an element of themselves where they wouldn’t be mocked or found wanting. I always suspected that James had recognized that common need from the people he’d met at various science fiction conventions over the years. However he came by it, James leveraged that understanding of fundamental human needs to connect with people.

It made him a dynamite consultant, too. When we’d go out on a consulting engagement, the first thing he’d do when we met our principal at the client site was to ask them “What is that you want.” After they told him, he’d sagely follow up with “What do you think you bought?” Given the inherent nature of sales weasels, the second answer was almost always disheartening – and 180 degrees removed from the first answer. James would then reply without missing a beat: “That’s not what you bought … So, let’s work together to see how we can turn what you bought into what you need.”

James taught me that the path to being a great consultant was to start by being a decent human being: give a damn about your customers and their needs. Play straight with them. Maintain their trust. Don’t just tell people what they need to do to address their problems … help them to do it.

I think the greatest salute that I can offer James is to spread his message. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, or what it is that you bring to the market. James’s first principle remains true for all of us: things will get better, so long as decent people take deliberate action to make things better.

Go make something better for someone else today. Then pass along the imperative to make the world a little bit better to someone else. Help the meme spread. 

[1] Once again, from the vaults of Wikipedia: “A meme is ‘an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.’ A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.”

[2] If you Google that company name, there’s a new outfit operating under the name in Georgia, USA. No relation to James’s original business which ran from 2000 through 2008.

[3] Which, for a small business, meant handling payroll, records, IT services, logistics, and basically everything that wasn’t actual consulting.

[4] Within Engineering Services, salesman’s full title was “smarmy butt weasels.” We actually got along well with the best 10% of the force and warmly embraced the new sales staff. That said, everyone in the division quickly learned to loathe the worst of the bunch – those lying gits that would promise anything no matter how absurd in order to close a deal.

[5] Which was an absolutely terrible idea.

[6] What choice did he really have? Of course he agreed.

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