The car door closed and they were alone. As the old man backed down the driveway, the younger man spoke. “Thanks for doing this with me Poobah.”
“It’s what Poobahs are for, Sunshine.”
Nothing else was said until they were on the highway. A billboard announced “Starbucks 12 miles ahead.”
The younger man turned off the radio.
“Why do you call me Sunshine?”
“Because you’re very bright and you give me a warm glow.” The old man looked at him. “Is there something else you would like me to call you?”
The younger man said nothing as minutes passed.
“Starbucks. Next Exit.”
The young man said, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee. It’s going to be a long drive.” Then he smiled. “And by the way, you’re buying.”
“I’m buying? I thought you were making a small fortune.”
The smile disappeared as if the old man had blown out its candle. “I am making a small fortune, Poobah. The problem is that I started with a large one.”
A few minutes later the old man handed a twenty to the server at the window and she handed him two Ventis in return. He passed one over to the younger man and put the other in his cup holder. The server was holding out his change. The old man looked at her and said, “No. That’s for you,” then gave her a smile and a nod as he pulled away.
“I’ve watched you do that my whole life and I’ve never understood it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You always over-tip. Always. Even when you get lousy service. Why? Why do you reward incompetence?”
“Ah. You think the tip is about them.”
“Of course the tip is about them. Who else would it be about?”
“The tip is about me, Sunshine.”
“You give a stranger at a window ten bucks just to prove you’re rich? Hell, she knew you were rich when she saw the car.”
“I surprised her with something she didn’t expect. It makes me feel good to know she’s having a better day right now than she was having 5 minutes ago.”
“Does it make you feel ten dollars good?”
“You’re nuts, Poobah.”
“Always have been.”
Sunshine nested his empty cup inside Poobah’s empty cup.
“Sunshine, you said you were making a small fortune from a large one. I take it you’re talking about the money from the investors?”
The young man nodded.
“Sunshine, tell me what you know about unifying principles.”
“Cells, evolution, genes and homeostasis?”
“Not biology. Business.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Unifying principles bring all the facets of a business into alignment.”
“Diamonds have facets, Poobah. Businesses have departments and divisions.”
“Businesses that sparkle have facets.”
The younger man gave a sigh of resignation. “Okay. Give me an example.”
“George Eastman organized the Eastman Dry Plate Company in 1881 under four unifying principles:
- Keep the price of the product low so the customer will find more uses for it.
- Always sell by demonstration.
- Be the first to embrace new technologies.
- Listen to what the customer tells you.
Any time there was a decision to be made, the CEO would choose the solution that best aligned with those four unifying principles. In 1976, Eastman Kodak sold 90% of all the camera film and 85% of all the cameras in America. By 1988 they had more than 145,000 employees worldwide and in 1996 they had 16 billion dollars in annual revenues and a valuation of 31 billion.”
“And in 2012 they went bankrupt, Poobah. I hate to be the one to tell you, but Kodak went broke. Dead and gone. Times have changed.”
“Kodak went broke when they abandoned the unifying principles that gave the company it’s vision and purpose and strength.”
“You’re talking philosophy, Poobah. I’m talking bankruptcy. I’m talking facts.”
The old man smiled. “Okay, Sunshine, here’s a fact. Principle number 3 was, ‘Be the first to embrace new technologies.'”
“You’re saying Kodak should have pioneered digital photography.”
“No, I’m saying their own unifying principles say they should have pioneered digital photography. Kodak went broke because they decided they were in the camera film business. They quit listening to the customer.”
“The internet changed everything.”
“Not as much as you think.”
“Poobah, I understand that you’re trying to help and I love you for that, but things aren’t like they used to be when you were my age or even when Mom was my age. Business today is all about metrics, numbers, outcomes.”
The old man looked at him a long moment, then back at the road ahead. “Outcomes and numbers and metrics are generated by actions. Behavior.”
“The customer’s actions and behavior. Yes.”
“But the customer’s actions can be altered by our own actions.”
“I have good people, Poobah. They know what they’re doing.”
“They’re doing what they believe is right.”
“They know what they’re doing.”
“Every action is an expression of a belief. This is true whether you are a customer or an employee or a CEO.
“You’re saying we need better marketing to change what our customers believe about us.”
The old man shook his head. “I’m not talking about marketing. I’m talking about making choices and taking action.”
“Things are different today, Poobah. Things have changed.”
“Some things never change.”
“No one believes that but you.”
“Bezos believes it, too.”
“Jeff Bezos of Amazon?”
“I’ll tell you about Bezos after I tell you about the four people you meet on the ocean of life.”
“Can we skip the ocean of life and go straight to Jeff Bezos?”
“No. It’s a long drive. We have time to talk about both.”
The young man reclined his seat, crossed his arms and closed his eyes as the older man continued.
“There are only four people on the ocean of life and you meet them over and over again. The first person you meet is drifting. The winds and waves of circumstance push the drifter this way and that way and the drifter just ‘goes with the flow.’ You know you’ve met a drifter when they say, “Whatever. It’s all good.”
His eyes still closed, Sunshine smiled and said, “You sounded just like Bobby Marino when you said that.”
“The second person you meet is surfing. Surfers seem to be having a good time, but they never really get anywhere unless it’s by accident. The surfer is just looking for a wave to ride. ‘The next big thing.'”
“Am I to understand that the wind and the waves represent our circumstances and the surfer is an opportunist that’s looking for a wave to ride?”
The young man’s eyes popped open. “So what’s wrong with that?”
“The surfer isn’t focused on a destination. He’s just trying to stay on top of the wave.”
“But if he’s skillful, he can ride that wave all the way to the end.”
“The danger isn’t that he’ll fall off, Sunshine. The danger is that he’s riding a wave to nowhere.”
“You’re talking philosophy again.”
“The third person you meet on the ocean of life is drowning.”
The young man closed his eyes again and settled back into his seat. His words were softer now. “That’s how I feel.”
“I know, Sunshine. But you’re not a drowner.”
The younger man turned his head toward the window. The old man continued.
“Each of us, if we’re healthy and normal, might need to be rescued two or three times in our life by someone who loves us. It might be financial rescue or emotional rescue or chemical or relational, but we’ll need someone to reach down and grab us and pull us back to where we can breathe. That’s normal. We need rescuing because we’re human.”
Sunshine shifted in his seat.
The old man went on, “But this third person is a professional drowner. You’ve met them. They whine and cry, ‘It’s just been the worst week of my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ So you help them. You get them back on their feet. Then, when you see them again and ask how it’s going, they say, ‘It’s just been the worst week of my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do.'”
“Uncle Todd. Rick the postman. Mom’s friend, Sharon.”
“Like I said, we’ve all met them.”
“So who is the fourth person?”
“The fourth person you meet on the ocean of life is the one that you and I want to be.”
“They usually succeed sooner or later, but success is an outcome. The reason they succeed is because they’re navigating.”
“A navigator uses numbers, Poobah. Metrics. Graphs. Pie charts.”
The old man sighed. “We look at the numbers to see where we are. Numbers show us the outcomes of all the decisions we’ve made so far. But they don’t tell us where to go.”
“So how does the navigator navigate?”
“A navigator is guided through the darkness by something that isn’t connected to the wind and waves. The North Star has been a guiding light for thousands of years because it’s the only star in our sky that doesn’t move.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“The southern hemisphere has the Southern Cross.”
“So you’re talking about the northern hemisphere.”
“I’m talking about where you and I live.”
“The North Star, Polaris, is located directly above the axis of the earth. Every other star in the sky and the earth itself revolve around that guiding light. It is a unifying principle, a non-negotiable standard.”
“Great story, Poobah. Now tell me about Bezos at Amazon.”
“We’ll let Bezos speak for himself. Google ‘The 20 Smartest Things Jeff Bezos Has Ever Said.'”
A moment later the younger man said, “Here it is. The Motley Fool. Morgan Housel.”
“That’s the one. Now look at number 6 on that list.”
The younger man began to read out loud. “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ but I almost never get the question, ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. … In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ or ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”
The younger man looked up from his phone and out the windshield.
“Sunshine, do you believe that if you take the right actions, the correct results will follow?”
“Why do I feel like you’re sneaking up on me?”
“To change a person’s actions you must first change their beliefs. I’m not sneaking up on you, Sunshine. I am, however, trying to change your beliefs. But I’m doing it openly. There is no sneaking. Now Google, ‘Bezos letter to shareholders. 2010′”
A moment later, the younger man began reading, “In a letter to shareholders in 2010…” His voice drifted into silence then returned to full volume moments later. “‘Senior leaders that are new to Amazon are often surprised by how little time we spend discussing actual ﬁnancial results or debating projected ﬁnancial outputs. To be clear, we take these ﬁnancial outputs seriously, but we believe that focusing our energy on the controllable inputs to our business is the most effective way to maximize ﬁnancial outputs over time.'”
The old man smiled as he asked, “What did Bezos say was the most effective way to maximize financial outputs over time?”
The younger man looked at his cell phone, “‘We believe that focusing our energy on the controllable inputs to our business is the most effective way to maximize ﬁnancial outputs over time.'”
The old man said, “I wonder what he means by controllable inputs?”
The younger man said, “I’m entirely certain you already know and I’m pretty sure you’re about to tell me.”
“As I said, you’re a very bright boy.”