Category Archives: Life

Kicking the Hopium Habit

When my daughter was just shy of two years old, my wife and I were faced with a decision: to take away her pacifier—and endure a week of interrupted sleep as she cried her way to a pacifier-free world—or hope she would swear off her pacifier on her own, thereby preserving our well-earned sleep.

It wasn’t an easy choice for us. In the end, we decided to endure the sleepless nights because we recognized that the alternative simply wasn’t likely. (Not only was it not realistic, but the longer we waited for a different outcome, the more painful the inevitable taking of the pacifier would be.) By taking away her pacifier, my wife and I resisted the siren’s call of “smoking hopium.”

This term–introduced to me by one of my former managers–describes what happens when we allow emotion to trump pragmatism and when our vision for the long-term is blurred by short-term gains. That being said, if you’re the parent of a toddler, you’ll do just about anything for a good night’s sleep.

It’s not just new parents that are faced with the seduction of hopium. As I look around at the circles that I’m most involved in, transportation and startups, I see how hopium has inflicted casualties far and wide.

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Chris Pangilinan removes his gloves as he rolls his wheelchair into our meeting, his semi-permanent grin embedded on his face. A transportation advocate and researcher for TransitCenter in New York City, Chris is an expert on not only transit, but one of the more prosaic elements of many subway trips: the way you get from the street to the train. While most of us may just take the stairs or escalator, an elevator is a requirement for a wide swath of public transit users, from people like Chris who use wheelchairs to seniors who use canes to new parents with strollers.

The New York City Subway is the hidden workhorse for the city that never sleeps. The city simply wouldn’t function without the movement of 5 million people a day under the city streets. But the subway doesn’t function for many of the city’s residents. Less than 25% of its stations have elevators. Almost a third of elevators and escalators failed a recent inspection and nearly 80% of those have not received their preventative maintenance on time.

And while it’s easy to blame the subway’s age on its inability to serve all its citizens, not accepting reality is a classic sign that you are addicted to hopium. The subway inhibits Chris’s mobility because the New York City MTA and those that fund it simply haven’t prioritized building and maintaining elevators. They’ve spent billions–significantly higher than the rest of the world pays– on just a few short miles of subway. They’ve played politics with funding, sending some upstate and some to labor unions and contractors as kickbacks. They’ve hoped the problem would go away.

Only recently, with the commitment of new NYC Transit President Andy Byford, has the New York City MTA paid more than lip service to the fact that a lack of accessibility impacts millions of people everyday. Still, though, until the plan is funded, which would require the mayor, governor, and legislature to recognize that expectations for accessibility have changed significantly, something as simple as taking the subway is still an impediment for many.

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I was negotiating a job offer with an old friend who had started a company on the side and needed someone to run it for him day to day. They already had a handful of employees and customers.

“What’s the revenue?”
“The revenue will be $750K by the end of the year.”
“Wow, you’ve done an amazing job so quickly.”

I was a newly-minted MBA and running a small entrepreneurial venture was exactly what I had wanted to do when I graduated. And this one, right in the location I wanted with a local businessman I respected, was just what I wanted. I heard a revenue number and saw an office with real employees and pictured myself in the proverbial corner office with an opportunity to put in place all the lessons I learned in school.

To this day, I’m still not sure if it was him, me, or both of us smoking hopium, but let’s just say that the air was hazy.

Regardless, the end result was that when I stepped foot inside the company on day 1, I found the reality to be quite different than the rosy picture that both my friend painted and I had imagined. There was no malice. He was simply thinking positively and I was assuming positively. But neither was based in reality. The company didn’t have a unique value proposition, adequate funding to build a customer base, or any real way to scale the modest success they had locally.

My friend had wanted me to run the company and I ran it, alright. I ran it into the ground in about 6 months. I’ve reflected a lot on that time. Sure, the idea was flawed from the beginning, but I let hopium cloud my judgment. It was a lesson I won’t forget.

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Like any other bad habit that leads to bigger problems, smoking hopium manifests differently in each of us. It might show by deferring handling an issue with an employee directly and hoping that they will start performing. It could be losing focus too early in your venture or trying to do too much later in your venture.

I met Kenny Fennell over coffee in one of Ann Arbor’s many coffee shops after a couple of people had recommended we chat. Kenny was a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious graduate school and a finalist for the Go Ford Challenge for his startup Caravan.

Kenny shared some of the challenges that he was having building his social entrepreneurship startup, Caravan. He wanted to help community groups with transportation needs match up with other groups with underutilized vehicles, but was struggling with the business model as well as ensuring that he was solving real problems for his users. I gave him some advice and he promised to stay in touch.

Fast forward three months and Kenny called asking for more advice, but this time about a couple job opportunities he was exploring. What happened to Caravan? “We pulled the plug.” The clarity by which Kenny and his team moved on from Caravan startled me, especially considering how most start up entrepreneurs I talk to who are convinced that the next big contract or key employee or business model tweak was the one that would put them over the top.

For Kenny, avoiding the seductive call of hopium was fairly clear. He and his co-founder mindfully created a social contract that outlined each of their responsibilities and helped to create a culture where the expectation was that Kenny and his cofounder were “honest with each other because our social contract valued listening, being curious, and learning over winning discussions.” This strong foundation allowed them to define their personal limits so that they were clear on how much each was willing to sacrifice for their startup, a critical conversation that was missing in my entrepreneurial adventure. Finally, Kenny and his co-founder created strong decision milestones ahead of time so they could make an evidence-based decision that their startup wasn’t going to take flight.

Like any addiction, hopium is not an easy one to kick. But once you do, you’ll find that you are healthier and better equipped to accomplish what you want to accomplish. And, like my daughter, wife, and I, you’ll sleep like a baby.

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The intersection of transit and diversity

E3A13C32-3706-4B45-A258-37971625C87CIn March, I chaperoned my daughter’s third-grade class on a walking and public transit field trip to explore economic development in downtown Durham.  As a working parent, I don’t get to attend as many school day events as I would like.  But, beyond the obvious connection of this trip to my work in transit, this outing appealed to me for one important reason: it highlighted the innate inclusiveness and diversity embodied by public transportation.

My daughter’s public school is roughly ⅓ white, ⅓ Hispanic, and ⅓ African-American.  Over half of the kids at school qualify for free and reduced lunch, indicating a larger issue of food insecurity for children in Durham. Her school truly reflects the diversity of the area. Our use of the fare-free Bull City Connector—and the ½ mile walk each way to the bus stop—ensured that the field trip came at no cost to these children, allowing all kids to participate, regardless of means. It also gave me an opportunity to blow the kids’ minds when I used TransLoc Rider to tell them exactly when the bus would arrive. I even managed to sneak in some learning by asking them to count to 120 until the bus that was 2 minutes away would arrive.

Public transit at its heart embodies and celebrates diversity. Its fundamental mission to provide equitable access invites diversity of age, background, income, and physical ability. You don’t have to be rich to use it, but you can be.  You don’t have to be able-bodied to use it, but you can be. You don’t have to be a third grader to use it, but you can be.

Beyond the introduction to public transit, the field trip was powerful in other ways. On the heels of February’s Black History Month, our tour guide, third-grade parent and former city councilman Farad Ali, showed the students Parrish Street, Durham’s famed Black Wall Street. Here, many of Durham’s minority-owned businesses sprouted in the early 20th century. In unique symmetry, with March being Women’s History Month, the class visited two woman-owned businesses now taking up residence on Parrish Street as it begins another transformation.

The week after the field trip, I found myself again at the intersection of diversity and transit at TransLoc’s office a few miles south of Parrish Street.  It was International Women’s Day and our CEO reflected on the impact that our women employees have on TransLoc:

I want to thank each and every one of you for all that you do here and everything you bring to TransLoc. We wouldn’t be where we are today, as special a place to work, nor would we reach the heights I know we’ll reach without you. You are truly valued and appreciated and I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with you all.

At TransLoc, we’re taking concrete steps to create a more diverse work environment by assigning indexed, market-based salaries for each role we hire for.  These indexed salaries eliminate the need for negotiation, which research indicates disproportionately benefits men.  As a result, we have increased racial and gender diversity to 49% of the company in 2016, up from 32% in 2015.  Our commitment to diversity at TransLoc serves multiple purposes. Sure, it’s a smart business decision, as non-homogenous teams are smarter. But, it’s also the right thing to do.

Our mission is that of seamless mobility: to create a world where all modes of transportation are fully connected into a single, integrated network with transit at the center. At the core of this mission is our belief that transit is an equalizer, a democratizing force, transit is for all—much the way it was during my daughter’s third-grade field trip.

Transit’s role in promoting diversity started way before TransLoc entered the scene a few years ago and it will continue long into the future. In the meantime, we are excited to do our part in helping to reinforce its importance on our way towards accomplishing our mission to create seamless mobility and make transit the first choice for all.

Crossposted from a post I wrote for the TransLoc blog.

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Above the clouds

It was one of those days where you’re not sure whether you should be flying or not. It was midday, but the sky was dark, the rain is falling, and the wind was howling. You just have to trust that your pilot has been through this before and can handle it.

We push back from the gate and start our taxi. As we hurtle down the runway, our speed forces the rain on the window to move from vertical to horizontal. We start heading up into the teeth of the storm.And then we break through the clouds and it’s sunny and clear. None of the gray clouds or rain are present. It’s as if we are in a different world.  

This should be self-evident. This is simple science. I’m sure I learned about this in sixth-grade science. But, if you can’t tell, I wasn’t always paying attention when I was in school. 

But it isn’t self-evident. When you are in the midst of the storm, it feels like it is that way everywhere. And that’s true whether we’re talking about weather or we’re talking about the storms in our mind.    

The trick is remembering that the storms aren’t everywhere. It’s always clear above the clouds. 

So how do you stay above the clouds?

Photo credit

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Architecture Inside Out

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I’ve loved architecture for as long as I can remember.  In high school math class, in the height of irony, I sketched baseball stadiums on my graph paper when I should have been paying attention to the information needed to become an actual architect.  And I devour those coffee table books bookstores always have on sale near the registers, highlighting the world’s coolest structures.

On my first trip to Silicon Valley a few years ago, I expected this area of mythic proportions in US business would be dense, pulsing with energy, and filled with cool architecture.  It wasn’t.  My visits to Google, Apple, and Microsoft found bland office buildings plopped near freeways. I noticed this same phenomena when I visited Zappos headquarters for a tour in 2013.  Zappos’ bland office buildings were indistinguishable from the rest of the sand-colored office buildings in the Las Vegas suburbs.

This image of multi-billion dollar companies in their suburban wastelands surrounded by parking lots was what I imagined when TransLoc announced our move in early 2014 to a bland office building in the suburbs plopped near the freeway surrounded by thousands of empty parking spaces.

We exchanged our urban address surrounded by college students for an office park for the same reason that those blue chips did so: access to enough space to collaborate and grow, ease of transportation access, and the right price per square foot.

I was scared about this move.  After growing up in the mountains with plenty of room to run, I’m now almost completely citified. Cities provide energy from the density of people, the ability to walk to nearby interesting places, and access to good food.  I recently finished a fantastic book called Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser that the subtitle describes as “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.”  I believe it. The thought of moving to a suburban office park depressed me.

Our old office on a main thoroughfare in Raleigh near NC State University allowed us to walk around campus and gather that energy.  The inside of our old space, however, was limited.  Our teams couldn’t collaborate well because we were physically split between two suites, there was no collaboration space even if we could get together, and the low ceilings and bland walls didn’t inspire anyone.  I was one of the few who still thought it was fine, simply because I don’t need many creature comforts to do my work.

As I pondered this disconnect between my feelings on the external location and the internal finishings, I realized that–contrary to many–I have an external bias when thinking about workspace.  That makes sense, right?  The first rule of real estate is “Location, location, location.”  You can’t change location but you can always change the interior, even if many don’t.

What I didn’t appreciate–and perhaps what all those in Silicon Valley believe–is that if the inside of the space meets your needs, the external matters less.  Thankfully, our company hired an architect to help design the workspaces, collaborative areas, and to use color and furniture to help make the space more attractive and help our teams work together more closely.  Exterior location may still always be more important to me than many of my colleagues, but the value of the collaboration space, high ceilings, and liberal use of color has blunted the negative impact of the location.

The best spaces recognize that the interior and exterior must work together to achieve the goals of the tenant.  And recent indications are that there is a positive change in appreciation for both the exterior of the building and the location.  Shortly after my tour of their suburban headquarters, Zappos moved to a renovated modernist building in downtown Las Vegas and Google recently released their plans for their new headquarters that will “transform the sea of parking into a natural landscape.”

And I only learned this by looking at architecture inside out.

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