Yesterday my friend Frank Del Monte recommended a new documentary film called The Social Dilemma. Maggie and I watched it last night and were stunned. If you’ve ever used Facebook, Google, Instagram, etc. it explains how these platforms work and why you see what you see. It is an exceptionally well done film and does not talk down to anyone.
This morning I’m alerting my friends to find this film and watch it as soon as they can. It explains a lot. Once my “alerting” is completed, I plan to watch it once more then do a longer write up here, detailing why these findings are so incredibly important and the impact I think these platforms are having on all of our lives – and not all for the good. But for right now, please make time to watch this movie. That way, my analysis will have more impact for you as you’ll have seen what I’m talking about. Let me predict something: After you watch this, you will be doing what I am, telling your friends and family to watch it, too. What actions you decide to take are your own.
One of my best friends has a deep knowledge of cars and motorcycles, so we always have plenty to discuss. Recently, though, our conversation drifted to corporate life. His employer has been promoting him. From leading engineering projects, he now manages people and that includes letting people go. This is disturbing and is upsetting him. After we talked last week, I thought about lessons I’d learned being in a similar spot myself. Letting someone go or being let go, is never, ever fun.
With a near photographic memory and a passion for great engineering, it was no surprise to me a few years back when he began to get noticed and promoted. But more money and bigger titles began moving him further away from solving engineering problems, which he loves, to being closer to and dealing with people. Someone once said, “The world would be a nice place if it wasn’t for other people.” While my friend is not one to suffer fools gladly, he’s able to keep those feelings to himself, and is respected as an intelligent, thoughtful and fair leader.
However, the impact of the Coronavirus on his company’s business has forced him in the past month to lay off almost a third of his team. It has been brutal and I sensed how difficult this was for him, no matter his stoic attitude. Firing an employee is one of the most difficult and unpleasant duties a manager has to perform and most avoid it for as long as they can. “Well, we may have let ‘so-and-so’ go too soon,” said no one, ever. The number of euphemisms for this occurrence are many: sacked, canned, axed, expelled, furloughed, fired, laid-off, let go, released, down-sized, discharged, RIF’d (reduction in force), re-organized, involuntarily-separated, lost one’s job, pink-slipped, dismissed, got the boot, kicked out, retired, removed, and cut loose among others.
His experience made me think back to the fall of 1985. After leaving Open Systems, I was offered a management position at AT&T. Arriving too early on my first day at the office of my new employer, I killed time at a nearby breakfast place, grabbing a newspaper and cup of coffee. I opened the business section and the headline at the top of the page screamed, “AT&T announces 24,000 person layoff in Information Systems Division.” Humm, “That does not sound good – that’s the area that had just hired me,” I said to myself. Scanning the story I noted the announcement would impact 6% of AT&T’s total workforce, but would directly hit the 117,000 Information Systems division. Perhaps my first day will be my last, I thought, setting some sort of personal record
Entering the office suite of Area Vice President Gil Rainier at the top floor of the AT&T building, I held the newspaper up and said, “What’s going on with this?” Not expecting this sort of greeting, he hesitated and then said, “Well, it’s one of the reasons you’re here.” He went on to explain. His regional branch offices weren’t just in Mpls/St. Paul area, but included St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Chicago, each with 100-120 employees each. He’d been ordered to downsize those branch offices to between 25-30 people each along with taking his area staff down from 30-40 to less than 25. Gil explained, “I know most of these people personally. We’re friends. I can’t do this objectively, so I am wondering, if along with your other responsibilities, you could help us make these painful reductions?” It was my first day on the job; it was impossible to say no.
Amazingly, before the reduction in force could be implemented, I’d had time and budget to hire one of my top past colleagues. Together we constructed a plan to exceed the Midwest Area’s annual quota for selling AT&T computers and equipment. Managing that effort is a story I’ll leave for another time. Just when we had moved into full execution mode on our sales plans, the layoffs began. My team continued on the plan and I put the cloak of doom over my shoulders and headed to the branch offices.
AT&T was not heartless. It cushioned the layoffs with a generous “separation package.” I don’t recall the exact details, but it was close to one month’s salary for every year you’d been with the company. So if you’d been with the company for ten years, you got almost a year’s pay in a lump sum after signing the “I won’t sue” paperwork. Plus, AT&T covered health insurance for two additional years or until you found other employment. A softened blow is still a blow and many of the meetings were full of tears and anger. Employees told me AT&T was the only placed they’d ever worked and after twenty plus years, could not imagine what they would do. They frequently wept, feeling a major part of their lives was over. Sometimes they yelled and screamed. AT&T had not only been a workplace, it was where they met and socialized with some of their best friends. They had few ideas on how they would go on and I felt ill-equipped to deal with the despair, frustration, and hopelessness they expressed.
But here is what I told my friend: For years after I left AT&T, it was impossible to attend an industry conference, trade show or event, and not be approached by at least one of these former AT&T colleagues. They’d begin by asking if I remembered firing them from AT&T. They told me how much they’d hated me and the company for doing that. But here was the surprise. Every single one said, in only slightly different words, “that was the best thing to ever happen to me,” or “that was the day my life changed for the better, and I’ve never been happier.” They all told me, in retrospect, how much they’d been stagnating at AT&T. They’d lost themselves in this behemoth company where their efforts were unseen, largely unappreciated and disconnected from what made a company successful. They told me how they were now working at a place where the impact of their contributions was obvious. They knew the value they were adding and so did those around them. This was a feeling they hadn’t had before. They were thrilled. And of course, it made me feel better, too.
I’m sure not everyone managed through it with such positive results, but I came to see things like forcing people to wake up and change to not be entirely negative. Everyone is afraid of ambiguity and the unknown. Being let go is never fun. But venturing out, whether you take the step yourself or are pushed, can sometimes turn your life around.
Epilogue: In the spring of 2020 we had a market crash and a national quarantine which precipitated the closure of many businesses and resulted in innumerable lost jobs. This take is not about hourly and day workers whose lives have been turned inside out and for whom I have the utmost sympathy and compassion. This story speaks to people who can and will bounce back. For those people, fold your damaged ego gently and put it in your pocket for later.
With my purchase of a 1969 Lotus Elan in 1971, I became the only Lotus owner in Rochester, MN. As such, I was occasionally pulled over by the police, mostly to answer questions like, “What kind of a car is this?” or “Who makes Lotus?” However, when I tried to outrun one of those cops, things changed. This is the story of how I got out of a speeding ticket written for “120 mph+.”
A first drive in the Lotus Elan had left me stunned. I’d never experienced anything like it. Rounding the curves during my test drive near Munger Imports at the far end of 4th street in Rochester, MN, the car not only seemed to hug the road, it felt like it had been launched from a slingshot as it accelerated out of each corner. I instantly realized I’d need to have a lot more time in this car to be able to drive it well, clearly a far better car than I was a driver.
Finding a buyer for my Triumph Spitfire, I bought this mysterious and wonderful vehicle, a car I still own nearly 50 years later. The night in question occurred during my first year with the car. I was returning home from a manager’s meeting at Schaak Electronics HQ in Minneapolis. It was a warm, clear summer night as I headed south on Hwy 52, a four-lane divided highway. Just south of Cannon Falls I somehow attracted the attention of a car full of guys, perhaps high school age. They made the classic male testosterone-fueled aggressive automotive gesture – pulling level with my driver’s window, moving parallel with me for a bit while revving the engine. Then they’d floor their accelerator and speed off. After a few hundred feet they’d slow down, allow me to catch and pass them, then they’d repeat the process again, while I kept my speed consistent at 60-65 mph and attempted to ignore them. This maneuver was repeated several times, sometimes with guys in the open windows facing me yelling obscenities.
About the 4th time this occurred, I’d had enough. As they dropped back again, this time when they were level with me, I dropped the gearbox from 4th to 3rd and floored the accelerator. If you know nothing about cars, let me briefly explain the concept of weight to horsepower ratio (PWR). You simply divide the power output of a vehicle by its weight. For example, in a car that weighs 2000 pounds and has 250 HP, the PWR will be as follows: 250 / 2000 = 0.125 hp for every pound of car. My memory says they were driving an older 4-door Impala. Those cars weighed in at 3,600 lbs dry. Add fluids and 4 average-sized farm guys and you’re looking at 4,500 lbs, easy. The 1960 Chevy Impala 4-door sedan was powered by a 235 cubic inch, 135 HP engine. On its best day, the Elan had only 115 HP, so the Impala out powered it by 20 HP. However, here’s the big difference. The Elan weighed only 1,550 lbs. Even with my 150 lbs, I weighed less than half what they did. With horsepower that close and weight that much different, and with both cars already moving, the term “leaving them in the dust,” came to mind as I rapidly pulled away up to about 90 mph, when I shifted into 4th and again pushed my foot to the floor and kept it there until the car was not accelerating any more. As my friend Brett Engel who owns a racing version of the Lotus Elan said, it really wasn’t much of a contest. “Even without the radical difference in weight, your Elan has far better suspension, better weight distribution and lower polar inertia, and far better aerodynamics.” (Note: The Lotus Elan is such a magic car, at the end of this story, you may wish to head over to my blog to read about it. Here is a direct link the section of my blog about the Elan, which I’ve updated for the publication of this story.)
Watching the headlights of them behind me, I gradually slowed down. But the guys in the Chevy were soon back, apparently wanting to make another run at it.
At this point, I saw the sign near Hader where Hwy 57 would take me directly south to Kasson, MN in Dodge County, were I had recently bought a house. As they raced their motor and rapidly pulled ahead of me only to quickly return level with me once again, I waited and then braked rapidly to make the exit off to the right, onto Hwy 57 south. If you think a light car like an Elan accelerates quickly, you would be correct. But it’s nothing compared to how quickly it will stop. The Elan’s 4-wheel disc brakes slowed me to an easy turn off speed while the Impala had no chance of making the turn. Although they tried to stop, their car continued straight on Hwy 52, where the next exit was at least a mile down the road. Even they knew enough to not try backing up on an Interstate highway at night.
As I drove south on Hwy 57, I saw nothing for the next 10-15 miles and gradually relaxed. No sooner had I concluded they were history, than I saw a set of headlights rapidly coming up behind me. Now I was worried. This was no longer a large, wide, forgiving Interstate but a rural, 2-lane blacktop. As the headlights approached, I sped up but kept watching behind through my rearview mirror. Sure enough, as my speed increased, so did the car behind me. Remembering my prior encounter on the Interstate and guessing now that perhaps alcohol may be involved, I decided to get out of there. I knew I had a long straight away ahead that dropped gradually down to a bridge and then an uphill stretch, also straight. I decided if I was going to lose them, now was the time. As I hit the downhill stretch and their lights dropped out of sight, went down a gear to 3rd and felt the rush of acceleration for a few seconds as I floored it, and then shifted back up to 4th. The Elan’s little twin cam engine howled with delight as I accelerated down the hill. I felt I was closer to flat out than I’d ever been. At this speed, the Elan feels almost more like an airplane wanting to lift off the ground. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead as I threaded the slight narrowing of the road and flew across the bridge. With my foot still buried to the floor, and half way up the hill on the other side, I risked a quick glance in the rear view mirror. That was when I saw the rack of lights on top of the police cruiser pursuing me. “Aw Shit,” I thought, “I’m in for it now.”
Cresting the top of the hill, I immediately utilized the Elans stopping prowess and pulled off to the side of the road. Far off the side of the road, as I had an idea of what would happen next, and it did. A police car crested the hill at high speed, saw me as he raced past and frantically applied his brakes. It still took at least 100 feet before he could stop. He backed slowly up and I watched him as he pulled his car in front of mine and got out. By this time, I’d exited the Elan and was leaning against the driver’s door.
The first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell kind of car is that?” and “Why the hell were you driving so fast?” Failing to come up with any better excuse, as calmly as I could, I related my I-52 experience and my thinking he was “one of those guys,” back to try and run me off the road. I may have left out the part of me blowing them off on the Interstate. But I explained that I feared for my life and was in a panic, attempting to get to the police station in Mantorville to seek refuge.
I’ll say this. He listened to my tale, although I’m not sure he believed any of it. He finally wrote me a ticket for “120 mph+,” saying, “I don’t know how fast you were going, but my car’s odometer (a Ford Police cruiser) only goes to 120 mph and you were pulling away from me, so I’m saying 120+. I took the ticket and drove the rest of the way home. God, I was in trouble. The next day I called Bob Suk, the attorney who’d helped me with some real estate deals and told him my story. I asked him to represent me on this ticket as I was pretty sure they were going to throw the book at me, at the very least, a big fine or maybe, even jail time and I needed a lawyer. I had no idea or reference for this sort of thing.
And now, boys and girls: do you remember the old adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart – and to always tell the truth? When I called the Dodge County court house to plead Not Guilty and get my court appearance date, I was told they’d need to call me back. A week went by and I heard nothing. Then my attorney called the following week and said he’d set up a meeting with the judge at the Dodge County court house and gave me the date and time. On the scheduled day, I met Bob Suk in the parking lot of the Dodge County courthouse and he explained a few things. It turns out that Dodge County could not afford to have its own prosecuting attorney. As a result, they contract with Rochester’s legal community for this service. Rochester attorneys take on this typically light workload as an adjunct to their regular practice, rotating the responsibility every year to someone different, so one person wasn’t always the same one to be burdened with this task. Well, guess who’s turn it was to be Dodge County’s prosecutor that year? Ah yes, you are correct. It was my attorney, Bob Suk.
It seems he called the judge and explained that one of his clients was faced with a serious moving violation charge and, since it was his client, he’d have to recuse himself on this case, as he would be defending me and could not act as prosecutor. To prosecute me, Dodge County would have to find an interim prosecutor, contract for and pay that person. The prospect was a huge headache and a paperwork nightmare and so the judge had asked if we could meet to see if there might be some way out of this mess. Suk told me that once in the judge’s office I was to only answer the precise questions directed to me and nothing more. “Steve, I know you like to talk, but this time you need to shut up and only answer the questions.” As we entered the judge’s office, I saw the police officer who’d written the ticket sitting there, in his uniform. I thought, “Well, this can’t be good.” After introductions, the judge asked the officer to recount what had happened that night that led to him writing me a ticket for “120 mph+.” After describing the circumstances, the judge asked the officer if the defendant (me) had offered any explanation for my driving behavior. The officer recounted what I’d told him about my encounter with rowdy guys in an Impala and I had told him I’d been speeding as I wished to find a police officer in Mantorville. The judge looked at me and asked, “Is this what you told the officer?” and I replied in the affirmative. He then asked me if it was true and again, I said yes. He looked around the room for a bit, then said, “Well, Mr. Larsen, we’ve decided to let you off with a warning this time, but we don’t ever want to see any more driving behavior like this again, is that clear?” I said “Yes Sir,” and a few minutes later we left.
Before I could congratulate Mr. Bob Suk on the result, he said, “Do you know why that just happened?” I said “No, what do you mean?” Bob explained, “Last week when I spoke to the judge, I relayed the story you told me about your being pulled over. That officer just told the judge the exact same thing. When that happens, judges feel they’re getting the truth, and you get points for that with some.” I smiled. Then he said, “But I’d still watch your speed around here. They’re going to be keeping an eye on you.”
Epilogue: If you’d like to know about my Lotus Elan, a car I am approaching a 50 year ownership history with, do follow this link.
Here in Arizona, our house overlooks a golf course, as do 84.4% of all homes in Phoenix (just kidding). But neither Maggie or I play. In fact, if you asked any of my golfing friends “Does Steve play golf?” the most likely response would be “Not so much.” This story is not about golfing, although I suspect both golfers and non-golfers will find something of interest.
Living in the Twin Cities from 1997 – 2003, after joining the founding team of Net Perceptions, we purchased a nice home on Bent Creek Golf Course in Eden Prairie. I loved the unfolding deep green lawn stretching from my backyard seemingly to forever. Better was it never needed my non-existent gardening ambitions. Our deck overlooked the green of the first hole, a 520 yard, Par 5, providing hours of entertainment. Being the first of 18 holes, the final players of the day passed our home pretty early. This allowed me to take a bucket of balls after the concluding golfers had passed and chip them from my backyard onto the green. Then I would step up onto the green, and putt them all into the hole.
While never playing the course, I got along well with the club management, pro and groundskeepers. Once they’d needed to use our lawn for some sand trap repairs and I’d made it easy for them. I knew most of the groundskeepers and waved every morning as they made their rounds. One time I noticed an older guy operating one of the riding mowers. That seemed odd. All the rest of the crew appeared college age and in pretty good shape. This guy was neither. I never spoke with him, but asked about him one day at the club’s golf shop. After describing him, a look of acknowledgement came across the course manager. “Oh, he’s not a regular groundskeeper; he’s one of our members. Due to all his DWI arrests, he’s lost his driver’s license. But he misses driving. So, his wife brings him over here and we let him drive the mowers around.”
Although not a true golfer, I’d become familiar with the game during my five year stint at AT&T, where golf is part of the culture. Not only were deals done on the course, AT&T sponsored golf events (Pebble Beach Pro-am for one) and invites high-value clients and arranges for them to play a round with a genuine professional and AT&T executives. Like it or not, I was expected to attend and play. While no need for me to be a stellar golfer, embarrassing the company by shooting a poor game was also not acceptable. After several lessons and lots of practice, my game settled into one where although never hitting the ball very far, I always seemed to hit it straight. It turns out this often resulted in a half-decent score, especially when playing with those who tended to plaster the ball a great distances but in all the wrong directions.
My golf clubs were purchased used for $15 at a garage sale in the early 90s, and I never really thought much about them. When going to an event, I threw them into my trunk, and then onto a cart. Perhaps someone looked a bit askance at my clubs now and then, but after seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s bag of clubs in Caddyshack, I was glad the size of my bag was at the other end of the spectrum. For at least 10 years of playing and a good number of prestige events, those were my only clubs.
As it turned out, Net Perceptions was a success, and went public in 1999, just before the Internet bubble burst in 2001-2002. Before the crash, it appeared I had a great deal of money, although most of it was on paper and in lock-up agreements. One downside of suddenly acquiring a big chunk of money is the mistaken belief you’ve also acquired extra brains in the process. This leads to thinking you must have the magic touch when it comes to picking investments. Of course, those opportunities are being thrown at you right and left by people whose business it is to follow newly-rich people around with the goal of snapping up some of that loot. This is how I was exposed to and made a $25,000 investment in a company that manufactured custom golf clubs. Here is how the scam, oops, I mean “business model” worked.
It begins with a desperate-to-improve golfer in a golf shop talking to the local pro on ways to improve his game. Everyone knows buying something, like special long-range balls, or the “super driver of the decade” or the “magic putter” which makes all putts roll accurate and true, is much simpler than taking lessons and actually practicing. And so, sales are made. It reminds me of the story of the couple passing a talented piano player at a bar, leaving a tip as they depart and saying, “Wow! You were just great. I’d do anything to play like that. Well, except take lessons and practice, of course.”
Back to our story: At some point, the pro suggests the stock off-the-shelf clubs the player is using may be holding him back. What might help is a special set of custom-made clubs, where grips are tailored specifically to the hands of the player, the shaft lengths cut to fit the player’s exact height and the heads all angled for his particular sweet spot. “Expensive?” he asks. “Oh my, not really, and think about consistently shaving half a dozen strokes from each game,” the pro replies.
A full set of top brand irons typically ran about a thousand dollars then, and the fully-customized set with a fitted set of shafts and grips was about $2,000. So, the pro arranges for a “fitting,” using the computer software, camera and other goodies provided by the company in which I’d invested. Once the company got the specifics for the golfer, they tweaked their stock shafts, clubs and grips to match the order sheet, applied the logo of whomever’s brand was specified (Callaway, Ping, Wilson, etc.) and then, finally, the most important and perhaps costly step, packing them up to look like high-value works of art.
Part of my $25k investment was a set of custom clubs. They would arrange for me to go to the factory—which was local—and be personally fitted for a set of clubs and receive those clubs for free. Of course, at this point, I already knew the cost from the business model was around $200 bucks, but still, I couldn’t resist “free” and was on time for my appointment the following week. Arriving on Saturday morning at the company’s warehouse-like facility, I removed my clubs from the trunk of my car. They’d asked me to bring the set I currently played with, perhaps as some sort of baseline—I wasn’t sure. But I hefted them onto my shoulder and strolled through the wide open double garages of the warehouse space where I was welcomed by the investment guy and one of the measuring pros. The pro grabbed my bag, looked at it and said, “Oh, Mr. Larsen, you must have grabbed the wrong bag, these are lady’s clubs. Did you pick up your wife’s clubs by mistake?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “I’m serious, these are Mickey Wright signature clubs.” Apparently this Mickey Wright logo I’d been seeing for the past decade wasn’t some famous male golf pro, but a famous woman golfer. Oh god. Do you recall the scene at the end of the “The Six Sense” when Bruce Willis’s character flashes back on all those scenes, realizing he actually wasn’t in them and redefines the entire film, giving it a whole new meaning? My mind flashed over years of looks from other golfers and caddies as they saw my clubs, then shot a look at me, then again at my clubs.
Duh! It finally hit me—what all those funny looks were about. Upon reflection, it came home to me that acquiring money doesn’t make you any smarter than you were the month or year before. Unfortunately, the market crash and subsequent IRS issues wiped out any semblance of my “being rich,” which in the long run, was probably all for the good. I stopped looking for homeruns and returned to saving at least 20% of any money that came my way and while perhaps not the “smartest” play one can make financially, it’s consistent with my values of hard work, persistence and determination. In the end, they’ve always served me best. And I stopped playing golf and gave my $25,000 clubs to my cousin.