Goodbye Chris Locke

News reached me yesterday my friend, Chris Locke passed away on Dec 21.

Chris had a remarkably large impact on my life and the way I thought, during my critical transition from working for large companies like IBM and AT&T to early stage startup companies. The Internet was just a baby learning to crawl. Chris expanded my thinking, kept me from doing dumb things, and never belittled my inability to see what was so remarkably obvious to him.  Chris was many things, a futurist, a provocateur, music and art lover and perhaps the best conversationalist ever as Doc Searls so graciously and accurately captures in his obituary here. I knew him best as a brilliant marketer, futurist and friend whose path intersected with my own in the area of business development. In that process I got to know him as a man, one who loved and cared deeply about his family, particularly his daughter. He could never stop talking about her, especially when she was young.  Our daughters were similar in age and as many fathers did, we compared notes, desperately seeking insight and understanding of these unfathomably amazing beings and what we might do to help minimize the obstacles that would no doubt impact their future selves. Neither of us, if I recall, would conclude there was much we could do but “stay out of the way.” Years later he introduced me to the music of his brother, Joe Locke, and I eventually managed to collect about ten of Joe’s recordings. Chris was intensely proud of Joe (an internationally recognized jazz vibraphone player) and the music he produced.

Just about the time we got together, Chris had started a publication called the “Internet Business Report,” when no one had even the foggiest idea the Internet was much beyond news groups and games. Later Chris provided the brains and the writing behind Mecklerweb.  If there was a theme to my friendship with Chris, it was that he could see the future.  Chris and I met when we both were in New York, me working for IBM-funded Prodigy Services Company while Chris was with IBM proper, helping them with a large-scale AI project, a mismatch of epic proportions.  We instantly hit it off and were closely involved personally and professionally for the next couple of decades.  We drove together to Esther Dyson and Jerry Michalski’s first “Retreat” in the early 1990s and later I recalled and wrote about it. Below is a summary, the full story can be found here.

1996: Things will Never Be The Same:

“Driving back to New York from Philadelphia in my ’91 Nissan 300ZX, I loved it.  In the car with me is Christopher Locke — rambling intensity, endless chain of menthol light cigarettes, a three gallon tank of cappuccino and a raspy, boyish, brick-through-the-window rage.  We were high as kites because we’d just left a conference outside Philadelphia where 50+ of the brightest people around had taken a few wonderfully unstructured days to throw paper airplanes and talk about what they thought and what they wanted to do. And all of it had been so possible, so absolutely open and feasible, that it had been like being present at the discovery of a new world. Whether an individual’s interests had been commercial or social or political or spiritual, there had been something there – a sense of things shifting and moving smoothly, like tumblers in a great lock.

When Chris and I get there after the long drive down from New York, we’re immediately pointed to tables and given t-shirts and magic markers so we can write on and decorate them. We also get green and red and yellow paddles for use in the next day’s sessions — a green paddle held up will mean “I agree with you,” a yellow paddle, “Hmmm, where are you going with this?” A red paddle, “Bullshit.”

The conversations are incredible, and for the first time in my life I participate in a real dialogue with 50+ people. Jerry Michalski leads the group in making a determination on what we want to talk about, where do we wish to focus our energy and then moderates. It’s a wild group and while I first get the feeling that Jerry’s task is somewhat akin to herding cats but after a time he appears more like Coach Pat Riley coaching the Los Angeles Lakers in their prime. Some people go off and prepare, then come back and present to the group, others present with little to no preparation.

Many things of interest, but nothing compares, though, with Chris’ free form rant. He’s been waiting to get on for a while and finally goes on our last full day. He’s enraged — you can see it in him as he walks. I’ve noticed him seething at our table — not always — mostly during the particularly techno-dweeb or business-as-usual ramblings. The amphitheater is terraced and on each level there are tables and all the energy seems to drain down toward the speaker, good or bad.

Chris gets up and “What the fuck,” he says, not questioning, more like a statement of fact. “I’ve been stuck at IBM for a year with my thumb up my ass and I’m waiting for someone to figure out what the fuck is going on and they’ve got plans I give them all the time and they file them and say “Yeah, Chris, that’s great, then they take me into some fucking egg carton room and tell me what I’ve got to work with, which is nothing, no money no equipment no staff, and then they give me a check and I fucking go home and sit there, where I’ve got better tech stuff anyway than IBM where it took me two solid months to get an internet hookup, and this is what they want me to do, see, they want me to do the internet thinking, and get them into it, but the first fucking thing they tell me is you’ve got no resources and ‘Oh, by the way, don’t talk to anyone about this stuff without clearing it through channels.’ A fucking year. And I sit here and some of what I’m hearing is how to work in the system. Well I say fuck the system — it’s dead it’s stupid it’s non-responsive it’s counter productive it’s fucking socially evil and if we put any more of our goddamn time into propping up these dead- ass morons we deserve what we fucking get.”

The veins are standing out in his neck. “Just fuck ’em and move on. I’m sitting around drawing a fat check off these people and it isn’t enough. I don’t want their money. These are deathly structures with no perceptible pulse except for once in a while you run into somebody lost in the fucking halls and maybe you start to talk about something real and then the guy with the fucking glad-hand comes around and tells you can’t do that, you can’t talk.”

“This is a huge goddamn breakthrough into who knows what and as we sit here IBM is trying to figure out how to put it in a box and make it sit up to beg for airholes and fucking cheese. We’re not going to work in the system because THE SYSTEM DOES NOT WANT US.”

Go rageboy, go,” Esther Dyson yells out (ed: the moniker would stick).  “THEY DO NOT WANT US AND THEY’RE CRIMINALS BY INSTINCT ANYWAY AND IF WE PUT ONE MORE YEAR INTO FUCKING AROUND WITH THESE DEAD FROM THE FUCKING TOP DOWN PIECES OF MANUAL-BOUND SHIT WE’RE GOING TO MISS THE GODDAMN TRAIN!”

There are whistles and cheers in the crowd. People are standing. One guy is on his table. Paper airplanes and erasers are filling the air.  “Let me tell you — I’m Program Director for Online Community Development and they’re paying me to do nothing and when I say “Hey, I’m getting paid for doing nothing they say, ‘As long as you understand the situation.’

His rant achieved eloquence, as rants occasionally can. Now, speeding toward home on the unspeakable New Jersey Turnpike, peering red-eyed through the cloud of smoke from the unspeakable Locke’s cigarettes, we’re turning over a lot of information, twisting and bending it, shooting into the twilight and the greasy salmon-smear that twilight can be around Newark, the refineries, the lights hung on the outsides of the buildings, seemingly, just like always.

How can I tell you about that conversation/monologue? Mix up a vat of hard information, coffee dregs, healthy contempt, real world pragmatism, mashed Toxico cigarette butts, visionary eloquence, trailing-off-in-the-haze 60s enthusiasms, pure rage, a sense of mission, Thirteen Ways of Saying Fuck It, a highly-tuned bullshit detector with wires and lights and everything, democratic zeal, arcane rock and roll, a dollop of Howl, a cloud of menthol smoke and a driver with his head in and out of the window, trying to breathe, at ninety or so, bearing down on the Hanging Gardens of Newark.

“We absolutely have to fucking burn the Fortune 500 down to the water-line. This is a moral obligation, this is an absolute fucking obligation.” Chris waving his left hand in the air, the smoke from his cigarette eddying around in search of free air to poison.”

Chris and I at one of the Personalization Summits.

Over the years I began a number of start-up companies. Occasionally an unsolvable problem would arise or I found an excuse to bring Chris and his thinking into the mix, as I always knew good things would happen.  The call would begin with me saying, “Chris, I’m getting the band back together,” and long before I’d explained what we were doing he’d say, “I’m in, man. Where and when?” His involvement at Net Perceptions led to the creation of the Personalization Summit, a conference we held over several years, where Chris’ influence on the agenda and speakers catapulted the event into a “must attend” conference for everyone in the early customization and personalization space. Speakers included John Hagel, Malcom Gladwell, Joseph Pine III, Ann Winblad, Robert Krulwich, Marc Singer and Doc Searls.  Of course, Chris would always speak, sit on panels or conduct interviews.  His favored setup was free-form, unscripted dialogs with some brainiac in which they bounced ideas around. Chris would open mental windows to the sky or a new universe and the interviewee would keep up as best he/she could.  I wish I had those recordings!

Some years later when he joined me at Krugle in Palo Alto, he arrived with a massive beard and his trademark waist length hair and announced he wanted to get a haircut.  Off to the barber we went and you can see the results below.

In May 2006 Chris joined me at Krugle for a few months. He arrived with a massive beard and his trademark shoulder length hair. He asked if we could get a hair cut and off we went. You can see me chronicling the event in the mirror on the 3rd picture.

Chris also visited me for a few weeks in Arizona after we’d moved there, and that was fun.  He seemed to like the desert.

Doc Searls, one of the collaborators on The Cluetrain Manifesto with Chris.

Chris used some of his experiences at one of my companies in his book Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices,” which took some of the themes he and a brilliant group of collaborators (Doc Searls, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine) had articulated in “A Cluetrain Manifesto” and put them into practice.   I was immensely proud to have been part of his thinking.

If Chris had a problem, and this is just my opinion, it was this:  given the brain space and time spent in the future, a place he needed to go, sometimes arriving back in the here and now was difficult and disconcerting.  In his trips to the future, Chris figured out a great many things. He had a clear picture of how certain things would be, what would continue to exist and work, and what things would be discarded.  He used these insights to formulate ideas, products, services, and life in general to describe what life in the future might look like and how it would work. When Chris “came back to earth,” he was troubled to see things around he’s discarded in his head as “dead men walking,” and learned he couldn’t do some things he wanted as they hadn’t been invented yet.

It puts me in mind of Dick Tracy and his telephone watch (two-way wrist radio). The generation that remembers Dick Tracy is fading but the telephone watch is in its infancy. Chris Locke didn’t draw a comic strip but he probably saw the future that way. Following are a few of his insightful comments recorded in The Cluetrain Manifesto:

Page 167:

“How quickly will commerce move to the Web?…is this question really so important, or does it just address a detail about timing?…there is a heartfelt question lurking here…It has to do with our fear of replacing the shops—and the neighborhoods they enable—with a paper-souled efficiency that lets us search out and consume commodity products at disquietingly low prices. We’re afraid that the last shred of human skin left on the bones of commerce is about to come off in our hands.”

Page 169:

“When we can’t rely on a central authority—the government, the newspaper, the experts in the witness box—for our information, what new ways of believing will we find? How will we be smart in a world where it’s easier to look something up than to know it? How will we learn to listen to ideas in context, to information inextricably tied to the voice that’s uttering it?”

Pages 174-175:

“Invisibility is freedom. At first it feels awful that no one can see you, that nobody’s paying attention…But you get used to it. Then one day you find yourself on a network…and it’s like walking through walls…You can get away with saying things you could never say if anyone took you seriously…And if anyone comes sniffling around and wonders if this Internet stuff could be maybe dangerous, culturally subversive, it’s oh, hey, never mind us. We’re just goofing off over here on the Web. No threat. Carry on. As you were.  But we aren’t just goofing off. We’re organizing, building and extending the Net itself…”

I have to stop here before I transcribe the whole book. It was published in the year 2000, twenty-one years ago. Doc Searls does a wonderful job in his Obituary of Chris describing the impact it had.  What a mind is gone from us! Goodbye, Chris. If you get a chance, send me message from the future.

Chris in his ID photo at Krugle, looking more like a convict than our newest employee.

Confessions of a Republican Political Operative

In Dubai last month I met the principals of an exciting Tempe, AZ start-up company, ZEV. The CEO, Carolyn Maury, and her co-founders were all at GITEX Global. ZEV converts fleets of gas-powered vans into electric vehicles quickly and at a low cost.  What they’re doing is brilliant.  As they have grown, they have sought and found political guidance and lobbying help from Barry Goldwater, Jr., son of the late Arizona senator who is now an energetic 83-year-old, who regularly visits Washington D.C. and provides politicians with his ideas.  When talking with Carolyn in Dubai, she showed me a photo of herself with the Jr. Barry Goldwater. He’s a spitting image of his father and it reminded me of my time as a Barry Goldwater (sr.), political operative.  I meant to tell Carolyn the story, but never found the time, so now I will tell you.

In 1964, my early teen years,  I found myself on the slippery slope where righteous intent slides into political chicanery.  My father, always a staunch Democrat in a family of Democrats, had sided with the republicans when J. F. Kennedy gained the party’s nomination in 1960. The church we attended believed if a Catholic were ever elected to the presidency, it would mean the Pope would be in charge of the USA. While my uncles stuck with the democrats, my dad—horribly distressed by Kennedy’s election—chose to side with the republicans into the 1964 election when Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater struggled for the nomination.  Rockefeller had divorced his wife and remarried. This was another major black mark on him from our church’s standpoint. Barry Goldwater was our man.  Goldwater expected to run against Kennedy, but when JFK was shot in 1963, his opponent became Lyndon Johnson.

During the final days before the election, my father brought my brother Leif (11) and me, (13), to a late-stage Barry Goldwater get-out-the-vote organizing event and rally at Lincoln Grade School about a mile from our home in Fairmont, Minnesota.  We quickly tired of the “what do we do next” discussions and found ourselves in a cloakroom in the back.  It was full of campaign literature, political tchotchkes, and bumper stickers — boxes of them – lots and lots of boxes of stickers. Staring longingly at the boxes, we asked one of the party faithful if we might help ourselves to a few bumper stickers.  “Of course, of course,” he said, “… take as many as you want.  We’ll never be able to use them all.”  We grabbed a box, not realizing it contained about 10,000 stickers, and headed out into the early November night.

Our first stop was the school parking lot, where every car got at least two new “GOLDWATER 64” bumper stickers.  Heading around George Lake towards home, every parked car we passed got Goldwater stickers, whether it was on the street or in a driveway.   About a third of the way home, we realized that unless we prodigiously upped our rate of sticker application, we would arrive home with a mostly full box. Although only junior operatives, we knew stickers in boxes could not help the cause, and we got to work.  Stop signs soon had 4 or 5 Goldwater Stickers.  The sign to the boat landing was covered with them.  A homebuilder’s billboard advertising lakeside lots for sale was soon coated with at least a hundred stickers or more.  We crawled up street signs at every crossing and placed stickers over street names.  A block or two from home, it occurred to us that mailboxes should also get stickers, and from that point on, both sides of every mailbox on all sides of the street were adorned with Goldwater 64 stickers.  But even with all that hard work and creativity, we arrived home with nearly half a box of stickers left.

When my father got home he acted less than pleased. The stickers, which shined in the dark, had reflected in his headlights, illuminating his drive all the way home.  He explained we shouldn’t have put stickers on public property and as to people’s cars and mailboxes, we should have asked first.  He acted mad, but I suspect there was some internally smirking – as no one would know who’d done it.  He made us give him the remaining stickers and he locked them in his car trunk.  He told us the next day we needed to go out and remove the ones we’d put up.  Good idea, but the glue used back in those days was meant to last, and remnants of those stickers remained well into the following summer, long after the election was over.  I don’t recall voting for many republican candidates, but I had one exhilarating hour as a volunteer operative!

Mexico’s Day of the Dead with MotoDiscovery

Most US residents have little understanding of one of the major celebrations of our neighbors to the south in Mexico. The Day of the Dead event (Desfile de Día de Muertos) is one of the oldest Pagan holidays and a majority of Mexican people wholeheartedly embrace and participate in the multi-day event. It mixes sadness and fond remembrances of family and friends who have passed away, the creation of elaborate altars with raucous, tequila-fueled partying, fireworks, and parading through the streets in costumes and elaborate face paintings.

The Day of the Dead could more accurately be described as “Days of the Dead” as it begins Oct. 28, with a focus on children who have passed. The major festival kicks off on Nov 1 at 3 pm when fireworks welcome the arrival of the spirits of dead loved ones. Until noon the following day, the dead are believed to cross back into the land of the living and visit families and friends, as long as they are remembered. To ensure these memories, families create elaborate altars with brilliant marigold flowers, incense, food, water, and photographs of the deceased, often with “Ofrendas” (offerings) in the form of favorite items of the deceased. Fireworks at noon the following day, Nov. 2, announce their leaving.

My partner on this trip is Kevin Brown. He and I land in Mexico City on October 29. We are met at the airport by MotoDiscovery Tours, who get us to downtown Mexico City Hotel in one piece and brief us on the following day’s travel to Puebla to pick up our rental motorcycles. We’re immediately grateful to have competent and professional oversight, as Mexico City and its 22 million souls are intimidating. Leaving the Grand Hotel Ciudad De Mexico on the largest downtown square in the center of Mexico City the following day involves over two hours of navigating streets snarled with cars, bicycles, buses (like our bus and many even larger), each competing to move forward a few yards at a time before the road clears and we speed off toward Puebla.

A terrific primer on the Day of the Dead celebration is the Disney animated, award-winning movie “Coco,” which I jokingly refer to as the “Day of the Dead Documentary.” Surprisingly, it gets a lot right about this ancient celebration, one of the only pagan festivals not “culturally appropriated” for modern times. Most of today’s revered religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, All Saints Day, and more were “baptized,” as the good Reverend Doctor Kevin Brown would say, making them no longer pagan celebrations, but Christian. And while the Catholic Church in Mexico largely ignores the celebration, the Day of the Dead has incorporated numerous religious observances such as All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day, albeit it without the solemn tone.

After a fun day in Puebla, we ride roughly 500 km (310 miles) south to Oaxaca, to spend two nights at the Casa Conzatti Hotel, a small establishment centrally located across from a beautiful park. Oaxaca is the epicenter of Mexico’s Day of the Dead activities. Shiningly bright Aztec marigold flowers are everywhere. Altars appear along the street, in hotel lobbies, and in most business places. (When riding to the top of Mexico’s tallest building in Mexico City we even passed an altar on the way to the elevator). After parking the bikes in front of the hotel and storing our bags, we head out to explore in the late afternoon. We join a group of revelers, along with a marching band ensemble, and trek down a 2-mile long street, past various squares, courtyards, and markets. Participants sport ornate face paint, all with a “dead” theme, and some Halloween-type costumes. Turning in after a 9 PM dinner start time, we heard celebrations continue long into the night.

MOTORCYCLE RIDING MEXICO

While the ride from Puebla to Oaxaca was an incredibly fun ride, it does not compare to what comes next. One of the premier twisty roads on planet earth runs for 180 miles (270km) from Oaxaca to Huatulco on the Mexican Pacific coast. Highway 175 leaves Oaxaca and runs mostly flat, with nice sweeping turns for just short of an hour until you pass San Bartolo Coyotepec. Then it turns into tight, technical, and tremendous. Turn after turn, quick climbs and drops snake us through lush mountain forests. We ride through small villages with names like Miahuatian de Porfirio Diaz, Rancho la Soledad, El Portillo Paxtlan, and San Mateo Rio Honda. Most memorable are the suspension destroying topes (speed bumps), sometimes with “Reductor” signs indicating a slower speed is prudent. It feels like a continuous Tail of the Dragon, but for 6 hours instead of the 15 minutes/11-mile Deals Gap road in Tennessee. “I don’t think I ever got to third gear,” one rider exclaimed, wiping sweat dripping from his neck, breathing in the rich humid air as we arrived in the parking lot of the Quinta Bella Hotel, with its 4 restaurants, two pools, beach access and views of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean.

We owe this magical day and road discovery to Juan Stanglmaier of MotoDiscovery, who learned of it during the years he worked with the La Carrera Panamerica race. Revived in 1988 from its historic beginnings, the Panamerica is a competition for cars made between 1940 and 1965 in a variety of categories. In 2009 the race moved to these roads in southern Mexico beginning in Huatulco, here in the State of Oaxaca, and became the most important classic car rally-type automotive sporting event in Mexico. Paying critical benefits for the riders on this trip is Juan’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of the sort of roads that appeal to adventure seeking motorcycle riders.

We take a rest break near a town named San Jose Del Pacifico, 3 hours south of Oaxaca and home to the renowned magic (psychedelic) mushrooms, harvested in the local forests. Nearby villages are homes to the artists best known for creating “Alebrijes,” the brightly colored animal-like sculptures, which we learn much more about later in our trip.

Before leaving Oaxaca, MotoDiscovery had arranged for us to visit a family living in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, about 30 minutes directly east of Oaxaca. The family’s business and home are fully dedicated to weaving and they graciously talk us through and demonstrate each step in the process of converting sheep’s wool into beautiful rugs and artistic woven wall hangings. After the demonstrations, they serve a meal of traditional foods, all fun and delicious. The dried and flavored grasshoppers I’d acquired at an open-air market hours earlier were welcomed, although the lime taste flavoring on the ones I’d bought was not as good as the spicier ones they served.

Most fascinating to me about the weaving demonstration was how they colored the yarn, all with natural ingredients. The red-colored dye comes from the cochineal, a soft-bodied, oval-shaped insect that penetrates prickly pear cactus leaves and lives on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. The insect produces carminic acid which is extracted when they pinch the bug between their fingers and use it to create red carmine dye.

After lunch and just before 3 pm, the patriarch of the family, a spry 60-ish man who’d guided his 23-year old son through the demonstrations for what looked like his first solo effort, allowed us into a back room of their home. There we found a substantial alter he’d created to his father, who’d passed away at 91 years of age, just 40 days earlier. As 3 O’Clock approached, he lit a large bowl of incense and began to wave the billowing white smoke over the alter with the photograph of his father – a wrinkled face with gentle eyes and Mona Lisa-like smile. Then as if on cue, the fireworks began, louder and closer than any of us expected. Moved, I asked Juan to translate my condolences to the man, but we both failed as our emotions got the better of us and we began to cry. The only way to communicate our feelings was to put our arms around each other.

Eight of our nine rental bikes are from BMW, two 1250GS’s, two 1200GS’s, an 850GS, 750GS, 310 GS, and one lone Honda Africa Twin. Tour leader Juan Stanglmaier rides his own (non-rental) 1150GS and Bill Eakins commands the chase vehicle containing our luggage, tools, bottled water, and snacks besides pulling a trailer in the event of a mishap.

Road rules in Mexico are similar to many countries in Europe, pure heaven for some motorcycle riders but absolute terror for others. Essentially, motorists on Mexico’s roads expend more effort on keeping traffic moving than on obeying what any particular traffic sign indicates. For instance, roads painted with large yellow double lines (as in the USA) down the center meaning it is unsafe to pass. In Mexico, this translates to mean if you are traveling at a moderate pace, you should move over, putting your right passenger side wheels off the road onto the shoulder, allowing enough of a gap for someone to pass, counting of course on oncoming traffic doing the same thing, creating a center “okay to pass” area. If unaccustomed to crossing double yellow lines to pass, especially with limited visibility, it takes a bit of getting used to. But with a motorcycle, it presents less risk and is easier than in a car. As in Europe, drivers in Mexico focus on their driving, not cellphones, radios, or conversations with passengers. There is little of the “competitive” driving you see in the states. While people will push and crowd with their vehicles, the sense of “we’re all on the road together, let’s do the best we can to get everyone through this,” best represents how most drivers behave. Traffic police are essentially non-existent and you’re free to ride at whatever speed appears appropriate for you, the weather and traffic.

Arriving back in Oaxaca, we began the next day off the bikes with local guide Benito Hernandez. His first stop is a several-hour visit at Monte Alban, an expansive pre-Colombian archaeological site above the plains in the Valley of Oaxaca. This ancient city is estimated to have had over 800,000 inhabitants, covering thousands of terraces and dozens of mounded clusters. It is believed the city lost significance around AD 500-700 and was abandoned and only used, since that time, for smaller reoccupations and occasional reuse of the structures and tombs built by the former inhabitants. The site reveals some of the earliest evidence of written language and a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of time and calendars. Only small sections of the site have been excavated and the site has thousands of unexplored layers, rooms, tombs, and commercial spaces.

After lunch, our second stop was a family enterprise along the lines of the weavers we’d seen a few days earlier, but this one involved the creation of colorful Alebrijes sculptures. One can’t spend much time near and around Oaxaca without running into the brightly painted, whimsical carvings. This marriage of native woodcarving traditions began with Mexico City artist Pedro Linares. In the 1930’s, Linares, an artist specializing in papier mâché sculpture, fell ill. While unconscious, he dreamt of a place with weird trees, animals, and rocks which turned into strange animals. On recovery he began sculpting donkeys with butterfly wings, roosters with bull horns, or a lion with an eagle’s head, meshing together horns, antlers, wings, and fins onto various animals. In his dreams, these creatures all were screaming “Alebrijes!” and so that is what he named them. Over the years the medium moved from paper mâché to wood and this part of Oaxaca state is famous for their creation. Some people believe Alebrijes are “spirit animals” who guide the souls of ancestors as they make their way back and forth between the living and dead during the Day of the Dead period.

Like the weavers we visited the prior day, we got to know this local family business. We watched the steps in the six-month process from a piece of wood to the finished piece. It is all done by hand, with a level of precision and detail hard to believe, as you watch paint being lovingly hand-applied with tiny brushes and the use of a powerful magnifying glass.

There are two levels of Alebrijes production. The first, this stop, offers unique, high-quality, labor-intensive pieces. The best of these pieces gain reputations for the artists and command high prices. It is not unusual to find, as we are seeing here, entire families involved. There is a lower level of repetitive, average quality inexpensive pieces which can be found anywhere. Having the chance to visit and meet this family of carvers was unusual. They typically sell through middlemen who move the products to dealers in Mexico and abroad. While dogs and cats were plentiful, we also saw many armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, elephants, deer, and fish.

The first step in creating an alebrije is carving. Copal is the most commonly used wood and comes from the healer tree family called Bursera. The tree was sacred to the Maya people, particularly because of the resin, now known as “Mexican Frankincense,” but is related to Frankincense and Myrrh and can be found in sweat lodges and Day of the Dead ceremonies. Sometimes woods like walnut, willow, cedar, and sabino are also used. Once the appropriate wood is selected, the artist “sees” the shape and decides the most appropriate shape into which to carve it. Carving may take several days, depending on how complicated the piece. The next step is drying, which is done naturally. It is the longest part of the process. Then it’s off to polish and sand it, then apply liquids to preserve the wood and ensure it will never attract insects. Then any imperfections are addressed using natural materials mixed with sawdust arising when they cut and sanded the wood. It then goes through repeated sandpaper steps, using finer and finer grains of paper until it’s super smooth and the final sealer is applied. This sealer is designed so that the colored paint adheres easily and is permanent. Painting is the final step. It appears as if they use hundreds of different brushes, some to shade, others to anchor, and other finer ones to make the decorations. Depending on size, this step can take from 2 to 4 months, as the colorful decorations representing life and joy are each unique.

Just as we are about to leave, it turns noon, and fireworks erupt all around us, as the living bid goodbye to their ancestors who’ve they’ve been around for the previous 21 hours and will now begin their trip back to the spirit world. A special Alebrijes was featured in the Disney film “Coco,” which was released in 2017 and is now available on the Disney Channel.

Another highly visible aspect of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration is the elaborate and colorful altars erected in private homes and public places. They are created to help guide the dead back from the spirit world to those who remember and cared for them when they were alive. They feature photos of those souls who have passed, memorabilia, things they loved (a piece of jewelry, model of a car, or favorite tool), along with representations of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. We saw toys of dead children, bottles of tequila, mescal, or special foods like candied pumpkin or sugar skulls. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls of those who have passed, so they will hear the prayers and words the living send in their direction. We found these altars in the private homes we visited and saw them in public places like libraries, museums, and especially cemeteries.

The bulk of the celebratory activities are concentrated over 3 days. Most families visit the graves of loved ones and decorate them with altars (ofrendas), almost always including bright orange Mexican marigolds. In Mexico, marigolds are known as the flower of the dead, with the belief the bright color and scent attract the souls of the dead. I was able to photograph many of these alters and found all of them moving and significant. Some pictures below:

Perhaps due to over-caution and some questionable judgment on my part, Kevin and I ended up with a day to kill in Mexico before flying back to the US. We chose to spend it in Puebla, an industrial and rapidly growing city of over 2.2M people. We stayed in a terrific hotel (the Azul Talavera) where the final tour dinner was held. It is close to historic and older areas of the city, beautiful parks, and massively large old Catholic Churches. We hired Omar and his son Brandon (who is studying to be a pilot and acted as our interpreter) to give us a tour of the city. You can’t imagine a more generous-natured and accommodating pair to guide one through a city. Unfortunately, their kindness was not equaled by a knowledge of the city. We had a pleasant enough time, saw some new buildings with terrific architecture and compelling designs, but didn’t learn a whole lot more about the city. (See photos below.)

Thus we found ourselves at the terminal for the luxury buses to take us to the Mexico City airport around 2 PM. The terminal and buses are quite posh and our $17 bought us wide seats with tons of legroom with significant recline capabilities. And we could watch a movie in Spanish through the provided sterilized earbuds.

It felt so good to get back on the road and ride again after Covid had shut so many doors. Mexico is a fascinating country, a close neighbor with a different language and culture, full of family-oriented and gentle people. The roads were incredibly good, well-paved, and full of twists and turns, to the delight of our group of riders. True to its reputation, MotoDiscovery delivered the goods, providing spectacular hotels, fun and interesting places to eat, but mostly thinking through all the hard stuff so we clients could concentrate on having a great time.

END

Traveling in Times of Covid: Crossing a pedestrian overpass from Mexico City’s International airport we spend the night in a crowded airport hotel. We spend two hours attempting to get the eVerifly app to work. This app is a complete joke and our biggest complaint on the trip. First, it is horrendously slow, then when asked to enter the date and time of our Covid tests (the primary purpose of the app), it gives a range of dates and times to select from that does not include the dates of when we had our tests. Entering dates and times from amongst the ones offered, although incorrect, allowed us to move to the next step which is to upload our “proof of negative Covid test documents.” An automated message in the app then told us those documents would be evaluated and they would get back to us. About an hour later, we got emails indicating we could go online and check our results, which were not accepted because “…there was a discrepancy between the dates on our Covid test paperwork and the information we entered on their form.” The only reason they were wrong is the application would not allow us to enter the correct ones! Fortunately, when we got to the airport, this eVerifly step is not at all required, and our paper documents showing we’d had our test within the 72-hour window were more than sufficient. Any claims by eVerifly indicating they are simplifying the process for getting onto your flight is entirely and utterly false. We wasted 2 hours the night before and another hour the following morning, only to find this step completely unnecessary.

In My Spare TIME – I’M A JUDGE

Arizona Commerce Authority

After I left  my position as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, an opportunity presented itself with the Arizona Commerce Authority. My first and continuing role there has been as a judge for the annual Arizona Innovation Challenge. Thunderbird logo For that, I review applications from a dozen or so early-stage start-up companies competing for $1.5M given annually in non-dilutive financial support from the state. In addition to funding, winners become eligible for Arizona’s Venture Ready Accelerator Program, involving business mentors and programs to improve a company’s strategies and go-to-market execution. It’s a big deal.  Companies entering the program have gone on to raise over $700M in additional capital, have had 17 successful exits, and have a current portfolio value of $1.4B.

The companies range all over the map in terms of business models, nature of products, markets addressed and stage – some just starting while others have 2-3 years of successful sales and operation.  Today I completed the review and rating of my assigned companies. At lunch with fellow AIC judge, Tom Blondi, we reflected on this year’s cohort of applicants. As expected, we’d judged different companies, but the unexpected was how good and how exciting so many of them were.

Many readers of this newsletter are former business colleagues or fellow early-stage investors. And so, I expect, they will find this a fun read.  Below are some comments on my favorites and a couple of “not-so-favorites” in my most recent scoring set.

And, the names I’m giving these companies are totally made up – to protect the innocent.

Don’t-you-dare-risk-it.com   

This business helps companies avoid risks when hiring people.  It turns out, making a mistake in this area can lead to very expensive lawsuits, and many times those doing the suing, win.  Better to not make mistakes in the hiring process and this company has found a way to dramatically reduce risks when hiring new people.

Need-a-nurse.com   

This company was created by a group of nurses who saw a market need (in-home healthcare) and a way to leave burn-out situations in overcrowded hospitals overworking nursing staffs.  Business growth is nearly entirely due to word-of-mouth.  They’re taking a model that has proven effective for several other Arizona companies and applied it to the home healthcare space and are doing quite well.

Helping-dementia-caregivers.com

Helping those who care for patients with dementia and patients with diminished mental capacity by making it easier for caregivers to do the right thing at the right time, while making it easier to document their interactions and how they care for patients. It is a wonderful thing.  I hope they’re successful.

Where-is-Mitzy?.com

For every pet owner with a dog or cat that likes to wander, this device and tracking app allows you to keep track of Fido, Rover, or Mitzy when they go on a walkabout.  If successful, they’ll eliminate lost dog and cat posters on telephone poles around the globe.

My-Eyes-Look-Great.com   

I loved this company.  They’ve created a niche in women’s cosmetics that, while I can’t understand or identify with, there is no denying their sales traction and awesome reviews.  Plus, I fell in love with the founder’s video introduction.  I can’t wait to get my daughters to try it and let me know what they think.

Travel-Safe.com

This company pulls together everything about a potential travel or relocation option and tells you all about how safe it is likely to be – in advance.  They’ve been very smart in segmenting their market and the execution to date has been brilliant.  I expect they will do very well going forward.

Multiple-Choice-Tests-R-Us.com 

I’m a sucker for anything that helps teachers do their job easier and better.  This entirely bootstrapped company has created a way for teachers to quickly create multiple choice tests based on their curriculum and deliver them to students in a way that helps students learn better, faster, and at their own pace.  While they’ve got some major hurdles before they become a highly successful company, their product has gotten praise from a host of top educators who love it.   This is what true entrepreneurship is all about – believing you can make the world better for some group of people, building something, providing it to them, tweaking it over and over again until they love it.  Now, they need to figure out how to build a business out of it.

Halfway through my career, I stopped working for big companies (AT&T, CDC, and IBM) and spent the rest of my working life at early-stage start-up companies as a founder, co-founder, or CEO.  I literally started my first company in my garage in Los Angeles.  Until striking out on my own, I never knew a job could be so engaging, fun, and rewarding. Reading and judging these ACA applications gives me a peek into the hopes and dreams of some of the most intelligent, hard-working, and determined people in business today.