That Time I Was Called a ‘ShamWow’ Salesman

Not long after Praxis launched, a handful of self-described free-market professors attacked it.

These weren’t strangers.  These were friendly acquaintances and colleagues.  In fact, they were people who shared lots of ideas and interests, and to whom I’d paid stipends and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for in my previous job.

They espoused the virtues of liberty, entrepreneurship, voluntary exchange, and markets.  Yet from behind their government-funded, cartelized institutions, they lobbed criticism when I launched a market alternative.  They didn’t like it.  Not one bit.

There were a handful of blog posts and a steady drip of subtle and not so subtle digs on social media.  There were a few conniving backroom arrangements intended to hamper young people in their non-profit programs from joining my for-profit company.  There was even one public shaming and mocking of a Praxis applicant.

None of this is a big deal, and it’s funny now that it bothered me then.  But bootstrapping a business is mentally and emotionally demanding, and in those early days, unexpected resistance from would-be allies felt tough.  It takes a while to realize how important it is to ignore non-customers.

My favorite criticism was a long Facebook rant warning young people to look out because, *gasp*, we were trying to sell you something! (Queue ominous music).

Better yet, it accused us of being “ShamWow salesmen”.

The irony of this criticism is so layered I hardly know where to begin.

Maybe it’s because I bear an unfortunate resemblance to the guy…

It’s an odd insult when a taxpayer subsidized professor says you’re like one of those dirty people who try to earn voluntary customers by touting the easily examined benefits of a product.  Say what you will about ShamWow, nobody was taxed for it.  Their claims are pretty straightforward, and if incorrect, they’ll lose market share fast.  Oh, and you don’t need Federally subsidized loans to afford it.  You can probably get refunds too.  And a shower squeegee and fridge magnet if you order now!

The depth of depravity in the college system is so great that a professor is more worried about a one-year program with a net cost of zero that gets you working directly at a startup with a 98% employment rate at an average $50,000 starting salary than a five year sentence in classrooms bearing an average $37,000 in debt where 62% of grads have no job or one that doesn’t require a degree.

Praxis participants – especially when we first launched – face a mountain of skepticism from parents, teachers, and mentors.  This makes them highly informed customers.  One early participant spent an entire summer researching the costs and benefits of college vs. alternatives like Praxis and presented her parents with a full D-ring binder to make her case before winning them over.

Meanwhile, hapless 17-year-olds are being pressured into six figure colleges, saddled with inescapable debt, and sent packing on an experience that fewer than half of them will complete, and fewer than half who do will get a job they couldn’t have gotten first anyway. (In fairness, the graduation rate rises a little above half…if you give six years to complete a four year degree).

Colleges face no market discipline, something these free-marketers are usually keen on, and enjoy countless advantages from billions in direct state and federal spending to subsidized debt to licensing regimes that require degrees to a K-12 system run by people dead-set on prioritizing and preaching college above all.

So here’s this startup, fully transparent, operating on revenue earned directly from voluntary customers, saying check us out for a year, we’ll give you experience and skills and a network and curriculum and community and coaching and the cost is zero.  Sound like something out of a libertarian professor’s nightmare?  I didn’t think so, but apparently I underestimated how much ideology can be separate from lifestyle in the Ivory Tower.

Anyway, I never responded.  Instead, it became an inside joke, so much so that one of our advisors created the image above with my face on the ShamWow commercial.

It’s been several years, but for some reason I started thinking about this whole thing today.  At the time, it seemed like it mattered.  Now it’s completely irrelevant.  The success of Praxis doesn’t need one iota of tenured professorial support.  It only matters today to the extent I choose to remember it and use it as a source of humor and inspiration.

Customers matter.  Nobody else does.

I don’t revel in criticism.  I have no interest in picking fights.  I don’t like it that some random people who have never been customers have given us one-star reviews on Facebook.  I don’t like it when people get personal or irrational or angry at us.  But I don’t care either.  If I can get a laugh out of it, I will.  If I can manufacture a chip on my shoulder from it, I will.  Mostly, I ignore it.

Bonus, I get some fun stories to share.

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

I like to tie up loose ends quickly.  I like to resolve things.  But the more complex the problems I deal with, the more valuable discomfort becomes.

If I resist the urge to immediately alleviate the pain point, hours, days, or weeks later I might get deeper insight and better solutions.  Early in my career and life, this wasn’t true.  The problems I faced were simpler, and direct, impatient action was better 99% of the time.  As I level up, the source and nature of problems get more varied and complex, and the better I am at living with some unresolved thorns in my side, the better I get at not just removing them, but eliminating the thorn bushes. (I almost wrote “from whence they came”, but realized how needless and dumb it sounded).

It’s hard to live with open problems, but I’m getting better at it.  When you own a business, you have to.  If you ask me what’s going on with the company, I’ll think of ten things we need to improve.  We are always improving, but there are always more weaknesses and vulnerabilities and opportunities to consider.  Always.  It’s not like an artistic project or science experiment that gets finished.  There’s no right or wrong.  There’s just better.  And better always beckons, day and night.

I used to get stressed by it.  Then I got used to it.  Now I kind of love it and thrive on it.

Everyone Else is an Idiot

There are tons of smart people when it comes to just about any topic.  Yet everyone but me is an idiot when it comes to me.

I’ve never once regretted ignoring everyone else when choosing how to live my life.  That only sounds arrogant if you’re in denial.  The truth is, you are always the only one who can choose, and you always choose based on your own internal compass.

To not choose is to make a choice.

To do what others tell you is to choose to value their opinion.

No matter how you slice it, it’s you choosing, and you can only choose based on your own beliefs and preferences.

The only difference is between knowing it’s all you and pretending it’s not.  Once you embrace your inescapable autonomy, you’ve got to confront your true beliefs and preferences.  The person you wish you were, the person others think you are, the person you want to be, and the person you are must square off.  No escape.  Stop trying to find one.

When you arrive at this point, everyone else is an idiot on the matter.  Only you know what’s really what (and even knowing that is damn hard).  Stop looking to them.  Stop being falsely humble and falsely wise.

You are right.  You just have to decide what you’re right about.

Give it 100 Years

Mass adoption of the internal combustion engine is about a century old.

Think about what it did to the world in ten decades.  The entire structure of cities, suburbs, cultural enclaves, and population patterns are based around roads built for engine powered objects.  Modern maps have a vehicle-centric perspective, which shapes our mental models of our environment, time, and space.

Commutes are a thing. With them morning shows, podcasts, audiobooks, gas stations, fast food, and convenience stores. Road trips are a thing.  Diners, hotel chains, fireworks warehouses, scenic overlooks.

People who don’t live on water can own boats and tow them to lakes. People who live in cities can RV to the wilderness.

The entire retail industry as we know it is possible only with trucks and container cars.

Air travel exists, shrinking the globe, proliferating styles and ideas, and making one day business across countries possible.

Modern excavation needs no shovels, opening opportunity for projects of massive scale in no time with few workers.

The petroleum industry exists, accounts for large portions of GDP, and makes many people’s retirement accounts capable of providing a home in Florida.

Entire genres of food and film are based on engines and their outgrowths.

That’s just a top of the head start.  If you thought about it for five minutes, you could list twenty more radical transformations.

Now consider: The internet has only been widely adopted for a few decades.  Imagine what it will do given just 100 years?

Force vs. Power

There’s a saying that goes, “If you want to know who controls you, ask who you’re not allowed to criticize.”

That may be roughly true in terms of who’s trying to force you into something, but that’s not the same as knowing who has power.  In fact, when it comes to finding out who is powerful, I think the opposite is true.  I say,

If you want to know who has power, ask who you can criticize freely and openly.

If a person or group has to force you to withhold negative opinions, they lack power.  It may be that they incorrectly perceive themselves as powerless, but believing you are powerless is self-fulfilling.

The truly powerful aren’t threatened by criticism.  The fearful and powerless are.  The weak and panicked seek the use of force and control to protect their fragile identities.  The powerful don’t care.  Your good opinion isn’t required for their success.

It’s easy to see people, groups, and ideas protected by strong legal or cultural controls and conclude they are the power brokers.  If you’re not allowed to criticize the priest, professor, or politician, they must be the puppet-masters.  This conclusion is false.  Their fragility drives them to violence, threat, and manipulation.

Meanwhile, those with genuine power are comfortable being lampooned.  They are as likely to laugh at satire at their expense as to ignore it.

When an opinion is shut down by force, weakness hides behind the threat.  When criticism is free to fly, power hides behind it.

If you want to know who has power, ask who gets poked fun of and criticized with abandon.

*I am referring in this post to power in a general, value-neutral way.  Power can be used for a great many things, but true power doesn’t require force, threat, manipulation, control or propaganda.  The powerful are not always who they seem.

Give It a Try

You have less to lose than you think.  You have more to gain than you can imagine, even if it fails.

We tend to over-scrutinize action, change, and unknowns, and under-scrutinize our current situation.  Most change happens at the margin anyway.  How precious are those marginal perceived benefits of known mediocrity versus the marginal risks of unknown potential greatness?

It’s not about the great feeling of reaching the summit.  That won’t be as great as you think.  It’s about the new summits that come into view when you get there.

All Or Nothing vs. Management

Some things are best done with an all or nothing mentality.  Management isn’t one of them.

Getting startup off the ground, picking and finishing a creative project, or being a solopreneur all benefit from either total engagement or total disengagement.  Black and white decisions made entirely by you or entirely by someone else.  It cuts through the crap and makes progress possible.

Management is different.  If you go all-in and do everything yourself or micromanage every decision, you’re limited to what’s in your personal capacity.  If you go all out and delegate with abandon, abdicate responsibility, and offer little guidance, lots of individual things get done faster, but not necessarily in the same direction, like ropes tugging at different angles.

This is a challenge.  My default settings are either do it myself, or hire someone to do it and not think about it again.  I can see it with my kids.  Sometimes they want help making eggs or building LEGO.  The subtle art of working with people, rather than working for them or having them work for you, takes patience and insight.  I can tell you how to make eggs easy enough.  I can make eggs easy enough.  But actively guiding from beginning to end, interjecting only lightly and when asked or needed, that’s tough.  It feels inefficient.  Couldn’t one of us be doing this?  Wouldn’t it be better to each do different things?  Aren’t two things at 90% better than one at 98%?

Not always.

As I mentioned yesterday, I prefer to play to strengths than shore up weaknesses.  The all or nothing mindset is a strength.  But it taps out pretty quickly beyond a certain scale.  It’s not so much about working on a weakness, it’s more about developing an entirely new skill called management.  It’s a skill nobody just has.  It can only be learned once you’re in a position where it’s needed to get you to the next level.  You have to reach your personal productivity ceiling.  Then you actually need to work with others.  It’s not about curbing the all or nothing mindset, just building a new one for new circumstances.

My brother once told me a CEO has only three priorities: Money, talent, and vision.  Money and vision are best served with an all or nothing approach.  Talent requires something totally different.

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