A Technology Ratatouille at TedX Cambridge

October 14th, 2015

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Last Thursday, the organizer of the Ted X Cambridge conference invited our Internet of Tomatoes team to feature the prototype technology developed by our lead sponsor, Analog Devices, and become the centerpiece of the event’s Innovation Lab (see two preceding entries in this blog for a description of the project). We turned out to be mobbed all evening, with some of the geeky Cambridge crowd heading straight for the prototype devices and farm data displays, while foodies gravitated toward the new local tomato sauce offered by Heritage Food Truck Catering, or wanted to palm the beautiful heirloom tomatoes displayed by Wards Berry Farm in Sharon. Many were curious to find out what this strange mix of science, agriculture and food was about. And of course, this was the idea …

As the evening progressed, and since tomatoes were in the air, I started thinking of the development of Internet of Things technologies as the equivalent of a ratatouille. Throw some tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, squash, onions, and garlic into a large pan with a bit of olive oil, let it simmer for hours, try it, add some herbes de Provence, try again, throw in more stuff, invite a few friends, get them to tell you what’s missing, have them bring those ingredients from their garden, and let them recruit other people excited about coming and sharing in your gastronomical production.

Technology development, like ratatouille, is no longer about creating a recipe in the lab and following a step-by-step process: it’s a series of culinary jam sessions happening over time, as the technology team moves from farm to farm and kitchen to kitchen, and the team fuses new components in reaction to what it learns at each event. Each public session is a performance, and each session acts as a forcing function for the technology development. Marketing people force the technologists to deliver at fixed intervals of time rather than meander as butterflies in the orchard of knowledge, which would be their natural tendency.

In the new co-creation approach, scientists still need to be technically irreproachable and (minimally) rehearsed, but a lot of the technology development happens in real time, with the marketing staff asking the technologists more and more anxiously, as the event gets closer, “whether the demo will be ready in time”. The answer is always yes, and miracles nearly always occur. At TedX, some of the actual fusion occurred on stage in the hour that preceded the beginning of the show (“does this conference offer Internet access?”). The best integrated narrative across farmers, chefs and scientists was developed on the fly, led by questions from visitors.

Watching my two brilliant Analog Devices technology colleagues in action at TedX, I found myself reflecting on how much personal transformation will be required of traditional scientists to move from developer of a traditional cook book recipe to becoming an improv’ artist able to engage others in preparing a large-scale meal where an entire community makes a contribution. This is what an Internet of Things project is like. It involves building a community of interested people adopting a common platform and set of data to change an entire ecosystem. Yes, the same engineering skills and ability to solve complex technical problems are still needed, but IoT scientists also have to develop an interpersonal ability to engage lay people, make the science accessible to them and get them on the collective road to discovery. In a world where scientists are called extroverts when they look at the other scientist’s shoe instead of their own, this represents a considerable challenge…

Being in Cambridge for TedX also reminded me of ratatouille because this is where Julia Child was from and her ratatouille recipe is my favorite (a statement which will undoubtedly cause my French country fellowmen to disown me). The best ratatouilles are inextricably linked to the personalities of their creators, and her infectious enthusiasm still brings a smile to my face whenever I think of her. The same is true for IoT technologies. Most of the fun for the public at TedX was in engaging live with the technologists describing the agony of sending data to the cloud when most farms have no Internet, the farmers describing the anxiety of the potential arrival of late blight, or the chefs waxing eloquent on the challenge of removing water from the pasta sauce when you use New England heirlooms instead of plum tomatoes.

Products are no longer the mysterious output of behind-the-curtain development processes. The technology kitchen is now wide open to the public, and customers want to acknowledge the artistry of scientists, just like they recognize the food artistry of great chefs. In the future, companies will have to become talent agents for their best scientists and market their personalities as an integral part of their value proposition on an equal footing with their products (the scientists and their oeuvre). And the best of them will have to learn to rock on the stages of technology festivals.

Sadly, the tomato season is now over, and I will have to either fly to the Southern Hemisphere or wait until next summer for ratatouille. Or better yet, I’ll talk my scientist colleagues into launching an Internet of Potatoes project to continue jamming together this fall and winter. I’m having too much fun.

The Farmer, the Chef and the Scientists

October 5th, 2015

11. The farmer, the chef and the scientistsFrom left to right, JP O’Connor and Rob O’Reilly, Analog Devices; Jim Ward, Ward’s Berry Farm; David Stein, Executive Chef, Heritage Truck Catering

It’s not easy being a Frenchman that has neither a good palate, nor any culinary ability of any kind. Having had my deficiencies exposed on numerous social occasions, I did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances: I started a food business (with the help of some of my friends). The enterprise is called Heritage Truck Catering. Heritage is a food truck we use to test on the streets of Boston the most recent culinary creations of our chef David Stein (“Chef David”), and this leads to the creation of food products that utilize local farm products.

On Saturday, October 3, at the Let’s Talk about Food event on Boston’s Copley Place, we unveiled our first product: a tomato sauce made from local New England tomatoes. Jim Ward, from Ward’s Berry Farm, contributed the tomatoes: a mix of his world-class heirloom, field and plum tomatoes. Chef David originated the concept of a local tomato sauce (his specialty is sauces and soups), and the actual development was led by Edith Murnane, former Head of Food Initiatives for the City of Boston, who led the project across its culinary, production and marketing aspects, with Adam Frawley taking the lead for production and quality at the Commonwealth Kitchen in Dorchester, with the support of a talented prep crew.

Simply put, we want to transform tomato agriculture and food consumption in New England, by progressively displacing the imported tomato sauce made with “bad tomatoes” from places without water (California), without soil (Florida) or places with dubious ethical and environmental practices (you know who you are). We believe these imports will gradually be replaced by an indigenous sauce made with “good tomatoes” that are locally grown, sustainable from an environmental and social standpoint, and offer a unique match with the soil of New England, what my country fellowmen call “terroir”. Because the best farmers in New England grow heirloom tomatoes, heirlooms constitute the distinctive feature of our tomato sauce. We were honored to receive positive feedback on the freshness of our product from a large number of visitors who came to our tent at Let’s Talk about Food, including a couple of nice endorsements from Boston celebrity chefs. A few homeless people stole some of our tomatoes, which we took to be a further form of approval.

Perhaps less gastronomically apparent lies a secret sauce behind our new tomato product: science. More specifically, a team of two Analog Devices scientists (Rob O’Reilly and JP O’Connor) are working with us in developing technologies that analytically track tomatoes from their growth at the farm, their transportation across the distribution chain and retailing, and their processing and eventual consumption. This project, called the Internet of Tomatoes, was also featured at Let’s Talk about Food and attracted great attention. We showed how sensors can be used to monitor the growth of the tomato plant at the farm to optimize irrigation or pest control (this is the cute little red birdhouse on the right of the picture). The data is aggregated locally through a sensor hub (appropriately called Fenway, even the technology is local!), then sent to the cloud, and finally analyzed through proprietary software to suggest new farming methods (“algorithms” in the jargon). In the Internet of Tomatoes approach, farmers control their own data and work together to create new insights as a community, without any risk of seeing large agricultural companies take control of that data to advance their agenda.

At the consumption stage, we are now in a position to analyze the contribution made by each individual tomato to the taste and texture of our tomato sauce, with the help of Analog Devices’ instrumentation and analytical ability. Heirlooms, in particular, offer a particularly wide range of sweetness, acidity, salt, or water content, which requires careful weighing of the dosage of each tomato in the final mix. While many heirloom buyers simply enjoy the idea of eating local heirloom tomatoes irrespective of their characteristics, we fingerprint our various tomatoes and combine them in each batch to get to the desired taste (yes, our chefs are a bit geeky!). We do this today with a mix of destructive techniques (i.e., we extract a liquid from the tomato and analyze it) and non-invasive optical technologies (view this as shining a light on the tomato at various frequencies and getting its full analytical profile from the way the tomato reacts to that light). For Star Trek fans among you, the idea is to eventually develop a Tricorder device that will allows consumers in the produce aisle at Whole Foods to use the device to decide whether to buy the produce or not.

All this, of course, has allowed to re- insert myself into the gastronomical discussion in spite of my kitchen limitations. I may not have the palate or the tour-de-main, but with the help of my Analog Devices colleagues, I am now at the culinary table, liberally sharing advice on the need to let the tomato ripen for a couple more days, or reduce the plum puree by another 10%. This has restored my French culinary credibility, and for that, there is no price.

Co-Creating Tomatoes

August 18th, 2015

It all started on a whim about a year ago. In the day time, I was the very serious manager of a management education and consulting firm that practices co-creation, the art of getting members of complex business ecosystems to work and grow together. At night, I was having fun running a shared kitchen that houses food trucks and food product entrepreneurs in Malden. Nobody knew of my double life, which allowed me to look inordinately sophisticated for a kitchen guy or strangely practical as a consultant.
I blame it all on my friend Steve Whalley, formerly head of sensors at Intel and now Chief Strategy Officer of the MEMS Industry Group. He invited me to give a keynote at the MEMS Executive Congress in Scottsdale, Arizona and suggested I talk about the application of co-creation to the agricultural and food chain. Together, we challenged this august technology group to develop a new way of working together using the latest sensor and Internet of Things technologies. We proposed that they join us in tackling the transformation of the entire Tech-Ag-Food value chain, starting with a specific product (tomatoes) in a particular region (the Boston area).
While we both pretend we’re doing this in the interest of technology, we are mostly motivated by our hope to get access to better-tasting tomatoes. I remind him periodically that the Frenchman that I am has more legitimacy than the Brit that he is when it comes to culinary matters, and we typically settle our argument by agreeing that Italians are better than any of us when it comes to tomatoes. Sadly, this fusion of my two jobs into one has also resulted into brain confusion I still have to recover from.
We became the Three Musketeers when Rob O’Reilly, senior scientist at Analog Devices (ADI), showed up at a breakfast meeting and announced he was spear-heading the development of a technology at ADI that could act as the core platform for our tomato project. Even more importantly, he described his unconventional mode of prototype development as “making up new stuff on the fly live with customers and technology partners, start gathering some data, then try to make sense of it”, which, he agreed, lacked a bit of marketing pizazz. When exposed to the principles of co-creation, he discovered we had been traveling companions, decided we were all on the road to co-creation and Steve, Rob and I have been project buddies ever since.
We’ve been working on two major issues so far: how to help local farmers develop new practices that improve their tomato yield, and how to measure taste in the “finished” tomato, with the goal of eventually connecting the two, i.e., figure out what agricultural practices improve not only yield, but also taste. (With industrial tomatoes, the two issues of productivity and yield are never addressed together, which is why most American tomatoes taste terrible). There is something both surreal and exciting about the dialogue between the analytically-minded ADI scientists (they showed up at the Malden kitchen with equipment worthy of the Rolling Stones) and the (mostly) intuitive farmers or chefs/cooks we are working with (“you just know when your tomato is the right one”). Because some of our chefs have done better than others at the analytical validation game, a new social order appears to be emerging in our kitchen (“I told you your puree was too watery, and the ADI guys proved it with their conductivity meter”).
On Thursday, August 20th, our ADI scientists will be collecting some data at the 31st annual Boston Tomato Contest. Our measurements will not participate in the evaluation of the tomato entries, but will allow us to understand further how taste as measured by taste judges correlates with analytical measurements of specific compounds in the tomato. Welcome to the Internet of Tomatoes!

10 Moments of Hell in the Life of an Angel Investor

July 19th, 2015

Dervil angel

A year-and-a-half ago, I started with some friends of mine an angel investment firm called Co-Creation Ventures , dedicated to helping food entrepreneurs, and my life has not been the same since. Here are the ten worst moments of the last year.

  1. The Malden River decides to flood our commissary kitchen, threatening the very existence of the business we’ve just started. We attempt to locate Moses, or alternatively a water pump and some rags.
  2. The Food Trucks Brotherhood in our kitchen is complaining that the Prepared Meals Union is hogging the prep tables and the ovens. We invite John Kerry to come mediate in Malden.
  3. One of our food truck tenants receives great acclaim from the Boston media, but in the ensuing two weeks, the truck loses its chef, cracks its windshield, punctures a tire, and struggles to find a manager who can both cook and drive at the same time (OK, maybe not quite the same time). We place an ad in Monster.com for the usual mechanic- driver-chef-team-building-consultant.
  4. The company-owned catering truck beats all sales records for food trucks in Boston in its first two months, creating a combustible mix of exhaustion, panic and inefficiency. Back-of-the-house blames front-of-the-house for overselling, front-of-the-house blames back-of-the-house for not delivering. Everybody agrees that investors are ultimately to blame for all evils.
  5. We discover that some of the trucks we have painstakingly gotten out of the gray economy through advice and support are taking short cuts again. We seek a compassionate retired IRS agent to get them back on track.
  6. Some of our most successful food truck entrepreneurs, knowing they are close to graduation and ready to move into their own place, decide to trash the kitchen and block the street at loading time. We are summoned into the landlord’s office and read the riot act. We hire a former Stasi employee, multiply patrols and install cameras for our newly established Kommandantur.
  7. As a mission-driven, for-profit fund, our investors are a mix of soft-hearted humanists and tough-minded money managers. The mission investors would like for us to compost more and count jobs enabled by the commissary, while the profit-minded investors want us to explain why cleaning costs and repair interventions have increased in the last month. Our financial director becomes appropriately schizophrenic.
  8. One of our rookie food trucks is violating some food safety rules. We coach, coach and coach again. Things do not improve. We finally have to cut kitchen privileges, knowing this effectively shuts down their business. There are tears in the commissary. A few months before that, we have had to fire a wonderful service provider who does not have working papers. This is not what we had in mind when we got started. Searching for a tough love nurse that can teach us how to cope with business death.
  9. The same entrepreneur-tenant can go from effusively thankful to our staff one day for finding him a catering gig, a new street-vending location or a real estate partner for their next brick-and-mortar project, to treating us like the vilest slum lord the next day because the dishwasher is out-of-order or there is a lingering chicken smell in the walk-in. We all rapidly move from the “uninformed optimism” stage to the “informed pessimism” phase of the emotional cycle of change. Is “hopeful realism” around the corner?
  10. Some of our projects fail or morph into something different, requiring different people in our operation. Creative destruction is most painful when it leads to separating from staff members who were early companions in our adventure. It is a weak consolation for them to know they will be in our heart forever when they’re no longer on the payroll. Why does it have to be that way?

To those who have failed

December 22nd, 2014

failure (1)

One of the most beautiful lines in English poetry is Lord Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all”. In many ways, the same is true for entrepreneurship in business. Tis better to have tried than not to have tried at all.

I remember having to wind down one of my companies as if it were yesterday. First, there were the sleepless nights thinking about the legal and financial consequences of shutting down the business. There were tough discussions with my partners about how to divide the remnants of our company. We had to sit across the table from old war companions and fire them. We had to go hat-in-hand to suppliers and beg them to accept a fraction of what we owed them. Most ego-busting of all, I had to go back to the people who thought of me as a star and admit our business had failed. It took years to get rid of the little voice that whispered “loser” in my ear.

I often think of this moment many years ago when I see all the enthusiastic faces of our food entrepreneurs in the Stock Pot Malden incubator we run.  Nobody goes into business to fail, yet many of them will.  Sadly, this is the cruel way it has to work. Success grows from the compost of past failures. We learn from personal agony, and there’s no avoiding it. Our incubator can teach them about risk, but it will not have the same power as experiencing failure.

Today, I look for partners who have failed at least once. I like wounded veterans ready for another battle. The odds of winning on second chances are better than on first at bats. I like the grizzled faces, the battle scars, the stories of things that went wrong. I seek people who have fallen off the horse, yet want to climb back on it. It’s the circle of life in business.

Staying with Lord Tennyson, “knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” Failed entrepreneurs, you shall rise again.


Growing up foodie

December 14th, 2014

mom_kid_veggies-1One of the joys of running a food incubator is to pick the entrepreneurs you like and go the extra mile for them on a whim. Today, I’m meeting Elena, a young Bulgarian mother who recently launched a prepared meals business for kids called Tiny Foodies . She and her husband prepare and deliver cold and hot foods for child care centers in the Boston area. As she is just signing up to work out of our commissary in Malden, Massachusetts, we start talking about who she is and what she wants to accomplish.

In her day job, Elena is a manager who analyzes medical claims data and tries to generate insights that reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors.  Her language is cold and left-brained. She describes the nutritional problems of young kids in America whose parents default to the pizza, peanut-butter-jelly sandwich and mac-and-cheese routine that will lead children to premature obesity and diabetes. I smell a Michelle Obama zealot who wants the kids pizza to be whole wheat and vegetable-laden, only to end up on the compost pile. I move to “let’s just collect the rent” mode.

There is something endearing about Elena, though. She has the modesty of her native Bulgaria and seeks advice. She has beautiful eyes that light up when she talks about kids and food. Not the calories of food, but the joy of food. Her particular passion is spices and she can wax lyrical about cumin. She rapidly moves from Morocco to India to Bulgaria, wondering why kids outside the US eat couscous and hummus, while American kids don’t. She wants to expand the palate of young American kids by getting them to try healthy, spicy foods at a young age, because this is what her mother did for her. She has a three year old boy of her own, and whether he likes it or not, he’s the food lab for the enterprise.

Elena’s problem is creating engagement with her customers and prospects. Her web site sells to individual parents (mostly mothers) using different child care centers, and she ends up delivering a small number of meals to widely scattered child care centers over the greater Boston area, which is clearly not economically viable. She also receives minimal feedback on what kids and parents think of the food. To explore new options, I encourage her to organize a live event with one of the child care centers she supplies, but she’s not sure she’s comfortable putting herself out in this fashion. I offer to be there for moral support, she rallies two of her young mother friends from Bulgaria to round up the protective squadron, and we agree to focus on one particular child care center in Cambridge. She suggests we conduct a session with kids, parents and teachers at pick-up time, while providing samples of the food.

As parents arrive to pick their kids on a cold and rainy Wednesday, we observe and ask a few questions on the fly. The child care center manager is our host and encourages parents and children to try the food. The dry nutritional agenda of American kids turns into a rich tapestry of kids, parents, teachers and child care center manager interacting to discover what foods children are prepared to eat at this particular moment.

Food itself matters, we discover. Kids are more adventurous than Elena had been led to believe from teachers report-outs (one of them in another child care center even suggested to a parent who had ordered from the Tiny Foodies menu that she send a PB& J sandwich as back-up, in case the kid did not like the food!). Many kids grab the bite-size food and convey enthusiasm without any encouragement. Lentils are a universal hit and solid foods are preferred to soups because soups are messy and require more teacher oversight. We even meet a two-year old girl who loves bok choy.

Even more important, though, is the human environment through which the food is offered. When parents eat the food, kids are much more willing to try it (we imagine that teachers could play the same role if we provided them with matching food). One Latin American mom silently stares her son down while holding the food in front of him for what appears to be five minutes. The kid finally gives up, reluctantly tries the food, asks for two more pieces, then wants to take the entire food bar home. We learn that mother’s toughness matters.

These mothers are all professional women who work in corporate offices near Kendall Square in Cambridge, and many of them were born outside the US. Two of them explain that they cook their kids’ meals on Sundays, then refrigerate or freeze them, but typically run out of food by Friday. They suggest that Elena talk to the child care center about making Friday a Tiny Foodies day for the whole center, equivalent to Pizza Day on Thursday, which would also help Elena concentrate her deliveries. As we approach 6 pm, the end of the pick-up window for parents, kids are so hungry they’ll try anything, and we run out of food. We learn that letting kids go a little hungry is an effective way to expand their palate, something that European, Asian and Latin American mothers have long known.

At some point, we’re joined by one of the teachers.  She’s everything you want a teacher to be, gentle, compassionate, curious and kid-loving. Although other teachers reserve their meal for a break away from the hubbub of the kid’s lunch time, she likes to lunch with the kids because she can role-model eating, can compare her food to the kids’ food, and create improvised little pedagogical modules about the fact that three kids brought bananas, a Japanese kid brought sushi, or a Latin American kid brought vegetable tortillas. We start dreaming of inviting these high-powered professional mothers of the world and some teachers to co-create with us the future menu of Tiny Foodies. We also learn that teachers are responsible for providing snacks twice a day, and they are so busy that they often default to cheese and crackers because these items can be stored easily and require no additional labor, vs., say, avocados which need peeling. Perhaps snacks could also be part of Tiny Foodies’ offering at some point?

At that moment, I realize I am in the right place. Although I advise several governments around the world on various matters, I am convinced the problem of kids’ food and health will never be sold by policy and nutritional standards coming out of Washington, D.C. It will come from food entrepreneurs such as Elena experimenting with individual child care centers, their kids, parents and teachers, and solving the problem at that micro-level. Eventually, some of those entrepreneurs will be able to scale their business and one or two of them will go on to transform the kiddie food chain in America. (At that stage, the government will have a useful role to play).

Elena and her business have a long way to go before she can claim to change the food world. But for one moment on that cold and rainy evening in Cambridge, I catch her proud little smile observing the kids eating her food. She starts asking more questions from parents and teachers on what she should think of next.  I can see her self-confidence grow. Watch it, world. Elena is spreading her wings.

Research vs. Treatment: When Will Our Mentally Ill Vets Get Healed?

May 19th, 2014

imagesIn March 2014, President Obama made headlines by announcing the doubling of government funding for the Brain Initiative, a large research project deploying the latest neuro-technologies, which he said would be “transformative” and allow us to “imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home.”   A month later, a mentally unstable veteran shot nineteen people in Fort Hood, TX. Some commentators – among them Adm. Mullen on NBC’s Meet the Press – pointed to the fact that the Brain Initiative might provide an answer to why the shooter snapped in Texas.

While this may be true in the long term, these comments reflect a consistent belief in government and business that academic, top-down research will bring the silver bullet for our most pressing problems.  As a result, we allocate too much public money to the wrong places.

Veterans need help now and cannot afford to wait the ten or twenty years required to develop this comprehensive understanding of the brain advocated by President Obama and Adm. Mullen.

In my consulting experience across a variety of science-driven fields, I have found that top-down scientific or engineering breakthroughs bring answers to major business or societal problems only in about 10-20% of cases (and that trend is decreasing).   Rather, 60-70% of solutions come from a bottom-up, practitioner-driven variety, i.e., “let’s work with the local people impacted and develop the solution with them.”  And the remaining 20-30% (also increasing) of solutions comes from “analytics”, i.e., looking at the gathered bottom-up data and identifying emerging protocols that prove effective for specific segments of people, usually involving a mix of approaches.

So why focus so much attention on what only yields 10-20% of the solutions? Political and scientific leaders love broad-based initiatives because they give them a chance to create their moon shot.  It is more exciting to announce a mapping of the brain initiative than some redesign of procedures to give veterans greater access to therapists.   But rather than try to develop a predictive model of why some vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI) will snap when others won’t, shouldn’t we make sure all of them get some basic form of care and reduce the likelihood that any of them start shooting at random? Instead of trying to be exquisitely precise in locating the gun in the haystack, shouldn’t we reduce the size of the haystack in the first place?

In fact, we already have many research-proven treatments for PTSD and TBI that would benefit vets right now.   None of them will be one-size fits all silver bullet variety.  That’s because effective treatment will always vary from patient to patient and involve a unique combination of traditional therapies and fine tuning of medication, alternative medicine and social support from friends and family.   For each person the formula may be different.  Dr. Cifu, National Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ physical medicine and rehabilitation program, states it this way: “The key is the right stuff for the right patient at the right time. The veteran needs to be your guide.”  In other words, it is an act of co-creation between clinician and patient. The problem with the scientific approach is that researchers in labs have not yet learned how to how to balance the variety of human need with the potential combination of solutions.  The best practitioners in the field do it every day.  We need to turn to them, because chances are that they have 60% to 70% of the solutions.  We need to invest in them to reduce human suffering.

Yes, some breakthroughs still come from brilliant scientists in the lab, but more and more of them come from an intelligent reading of what works in the field. That’s the 20-30% that comes from “analytics”. These analytics involve developing a series of ad hoc protocols that have been found to work, which were co-created between compassionate and innovative healthcare workers and the veterans seeking some relief from their pain. Not all field-developed protocols are good, but many are, at least in the local context of specific patients. This is what we should invest in: delivering these services and studying them in the process.  Unfortunately scientists have been trained to minimize the value of this field-based knowledge, arguing that little of it meets the scientific standards of medical trials.  (Even if it works.)

If we continue to search for the big breakthroughs in the sky, we may find that all our veterans will have died by the time the great breakthrough occurs. Professors in the research-dominated medical schools of yesteryear used to proudly say to their students: “no, we could not save our patients. But we could publish them!”

SAM THE MAGNIFICENT – How I learned innovative sales practices from an old dog

January 26th, 2014



I thought I was a great salesman. I was a young partner in good standing in my global consulting firm, selling enough business to senior executives in large corporations to be among the top ten producers in the firm. I thought I was a sales thought leader, and I was going to teach everybody about insight selling and next generation techniques. But when I met SAM the Magnificent, an old-school strategic account manager at my firm, I discovered he was way ahead of me. Here are five things I leaned from watching him.

1. Create a chain of empathy

I did not like SAM at first. He was an older guy, known for being the top salesman of the firm year after year. A strange twist of fate had made us partners charged with developing a large global chemical company account headquartered on the East Coast of the United States. He was as emotional as I was rational. He laughed loud, wanted to know everything about everybody, and always remembered something personal about his customers. I viewed this as an old-fashioned salesman’s trick and thought it was manipulative. “How about those Bruins?” he would always ask me, knowing my interest for Boston hockey, which irritated me no end. Over time, I realized he did not work at remembering those things: he just was that way.  He loved people and told stories. He had lots of them, and some of them were, shall we say, mildly revisionist. One of his favorite sayings was: “the best stories are made up,” which to this day makes me cringe. “People buy things from people they like” was his other mantra. “And I’m quite lovable”, he often added.

He was astonishingly intuitive about people. He was naturally curious about them, and would instinctively focus on their hot buttons, or their “red issues”, as we called them at the time. He immediately knew what people cared about, quickly figuring out something deeply personal and emotional to them. He knew they cared about rational business stuff as well, but did not particularly focus on that because to him, this was a given. I of course thought business was the only thing that mattered. He had the empathy of your average Saint Bernard and wanted to help people solve problems or advance their careers. Perhaps because he was approaching retirement himself, he loved “legacy clients”, i.e., senior people reasonably close to the end of their career who wanted to do a transformational project as their last hurrah. He would unavoidably sell large projects to those legacy clients. Like a good Frenchman, I could see his stuff worked in practice, but wanted to know if it worked in theory.

He talked a lot about himself, which I found distasteful. I thought of sales as an altruistic pursuit where we work on the other person’s problem, not our own. He spoke unabashedly about his life, previous projects, other sales he had made, personal family habits his wife would probably not have wanted him to spread around. He could connect any issue to something he had personally been involved with. He even boasted to clients that the project he was about to sell them would propel him to the top of the sales charts in his firm, and how much he was going to enjoy the all-expenses-paid week-end in New York awarded to top producers in the firm. I was hiding red-faced under the table during those exchanges. Not until much later did I understand the method behind his madness. Clients wanted him to win because he was focused on making them win. He believed the buyer’s and the seller’s experiences were inextricably linked. It was more than a win-win, more like a sense of shared destiny.

None of this emotional stuff was intuitive to me. Watching SAM the Magnificent, I learned to think of the customer experience as a small collection of highly emotional issues that made the customer’s life either painful (and therefore needed to be removed or alleviated), or aspirational (and therefore needed to be nurtured or created). SAM was amused by my attempts at conceptualizing in the form of an “experience curve” what he did so intuitively, but later joined me in innumerable training programs, using the experience curve as a foundation to teach what he knew to younger sales people. Much to his surprise, he discovered that even highly rational people can get better at experience once they learn to conceptualize it (although intuitive people will always be better at it).

2. Organize Problem-Solving Communities Who Sell for You

SAM the Magnificent used some strange tools. One of them was an oversized piece of paper he carried with him at all times. It was a full-sized flip chart page folded sixteen times over that listed in tiny hand-drawn letters the names of all the people he and his team thought were needed to make the sale on a given account. There must have been several hundred names on that list, from the CEO on down to maintenance managers in far-away plants. It took him a good two minutes to unfold the chart every time, carefully moving the beer mugs aside in the bar when we celebrated a successful sales call, or taping the giant chart to the car windshield when no bar was available. He lived and died by that chart. Next to each name was a smiley, neutral or sad face capturing the customer’s attitude toward the project we were trying to sell.

When people had a smiley next to their name, he made sure they stayed that way by having someone call on them regularly. When someone had a neutral or negative face, he started looking for people who could influence the reluctant individual.  Before becoming an account manager for a large consulting firm, SAM the Magnificent had sold large turbines for US utilities and loved electrical metaphors. He viewed influence networks as electrical circuits that needed to be closed. He thought of non-cooperating customers as “resistors on the line.” He brought on new firm resources “to introduce more amps into the sales grid.” He referred to the moment where negative customers flipped positive toward our projects as “turning on like a 1000 watt bulb”. With SAM, I learned to electrify the sales process by designing high-voltage circuitry.

SAM thought of selling as problem-solving, and he believed each sales problem called for a cross-company group to work on it. “Customers will sell themselves if you organize them properly,” he loved to say. SAM the Magnificent used his giant influence chart to mobilize the people required to solve the various aspects of the selling and buying conundrum.  And it worked like magic.

Over time, we learned that the mini-communities we had learned to set up for sales and project design purposes often wished to continue working together on their problems during the delivery phase of the project. This produced an intimacy of relationship that generated follow-on projects and new forms of long-term relationship between our consulting firm and our clients, eventually leading to new business models such as gain-sharing arrangements on operational consulting projects, or joint marketing of services to third parties. Our sales skyrocketed.

Today, when I find myself teaching sales groups about the possibilities offered by the new social enterprise tools available to sales people, I always think of SAM the Magnificent’s giant influence chart and how he would have loved to electrify it. Had he been born twenty years later, he would have been prodding his team to look up customer people on LinkedIn and would have encouraged the use of social selling tools to increase sales. Somewhere out there, he must be smiling.

3. Tell stories from data

SAM the Magnificent was far from an analytical type, but my relationship with him improved noticeably when he discovered I could do numbers. He himself hated numbers. All he could ever remember at any time were his team sales, his team sales quota and how much of a lead his team had over the next best sales team. But he loved being given the analytical fodder for a great sales pitch. He had a way of taking a complex issue and making everybody understand what was at stake.

He once stormed into the team room in the back office of the chemical plant trailer where we all worked and asked how we were doing in the development of the business case for the project. He needed something for a fifteen minute meeting we both had with the divisional head in a few hours. I told him we had some partial elements, including an analysis of which orders on the plant were profitable and which were not. We spent close to an hour going over the hundred pages of analysis my team and I had developed with the help of the plant controller, and showed SAM the company was taking several orders that were highly unprofitable once you allocated all the hidden costs to it.

“What’s the worst order they’ve ever taken?” he asked me. The “worst I’ve ever seen” line was a standard part of SAM’s sales approach. I showed him the ugliest order I could find, a marginal sale that that had required creating a complex production run on a high-volume machine, thereby destroying the productivity of the plant for three days because of the special material and quality control it required. “Let’s tell the story of this order”, he asked. This order became the stuff of legend. Although anecdotal, this piece of data did more to sell the project than any exhaustive analysis of financial opportunities in the plant. SAM had me develop a giant colored chart (for some reason, these charts were called “horse blankets”) and we took our horse blanket to the firm’s plants on five continents. I can still remember waiting anxiously at the Kuala Lumpur airport for our horse blanket to appear on the oversized item carrousel.

SAM did not ever develop data himself, but he knew the power of interpreted data. He had two data principles. He wanted the data to tell a story, and he wanted the data to be the client’s data as much as the consultant’s data. “Better have the data be a little wrong and the client strongly committed, than have the data be 100% accurate and the client uncommitted.” We all learned to fear the “is it your data or the client’s data?” question from SAM. Another more cynical quote from SAM: “if the client believes the data, it is data”. I learned to “co-create” data with the client.

Today, powerful analytic platforms allow the generation in real time of data that used to require large teams of consultants working in batch mode. Even with the advent of such sophisticated tools, the best sales people I work with remain in the SAM the Magnificent mold: they rarely do the analytical work themselves, but they know how to manufacture great stories from the insights supplied to them by the experts on their teams. Somehow, it is still about telling stories from data. I also learned that there are many more good data people than there are good story tellers. I still miss SAM the Magnificent.

4. Invent new ways to interact

Way back in time, long before the sales process had become global, SAM the Magnificent had pioneered the development of a new live communication medium. He hated PowerPoint so much that he had talked the company into hiring people whose sole job was to devise large hand-drawn, PowerPoint-like charts that would fit in an oversized suitcase. We would solemnly open the case for each presentation, thereby bringing a unique artistry to each meeting. This generated a Cirque du Soleil-like buzz, even in the firms with the most deeply-engrained engineering cultures. SAM would sit in the back of the group, gently prodding senior clients to react, while members of the team would expose the findings through those large drawings. We were often asked to sign our presentations. Client members would ask to borrow the charts to make the same presentation to other people in the firm. Client members wanted to jump in the ring and become artists themselves. They wanted to do the show. SAM had invented viral networking.

These hand-drawn interactive presentations were part of a larger SWAT team approach to clients’ problems called Analysis, which SAM had also been a pioneer of. Analysis was, to put it mildly, a euphemism. “The purpose of Analysis”, SAM told me when I first met him, “is to sell large global projects” (just in case I thought analysis was about analyzing). During an Analysis, SAM was the battle field general and the Analysis team was the Marines. A typical Analysis project would last six to eight weeks for complex multi-location transformation programs, and the team would literally move into the client’s location from Monday noon till Friday noon (we did go home for the week-end). The war room where the team worked and where early results were displayed became the hub of all transformational activities at each location, with the Analysis team inviting clients to come and engage in continuous fashion with the consultants. “If there isn’t at least one crisis a day”, SAM told me, “the Analysis team is not doing its job.”

Most clients had never seen anything resembling this level of engagement, and the sheer novelty of the approach became part of the franchise. Other plants in the client’s network would ask “to be analyzed”, generating new leads for SAM the Magnificent. The process was highly collaborative, but we controlled the mode of engagement. Analysis team would set up a joint team with the relevant functional people at the client, and before we knew it, the size of the sales team would double or triple through the addition of client people eager to sell their management on the project. By today’s standards, the tools of engagement we used were crude, relying mostly on 1950s group facilitation and team-building techniques. But the power of engagement was so strong that we were unstoppable. Our conversion rate ran consistently around 95% for years, with the average size of projects roughly doubling every year, producing 40% growth for our firm for a good twelve years in a row.

From SAM, I learned to think of each meeting as an opportunity to engage on the basis of some facts or data. “The question you will ask them from the chart is as important as the facts on the chart” he once told me. “Hardly any sales folks ever think of asking questions. That’s what I do.” He had a little note book where he wrote down quotes for later use. I directed him to one of Picasso’s famous quotes: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Many years later, he kept quoting Picasso to me, as if I had never heard it before.

5. Let new sources of value emerge from the engagement process

When I first met SAM, I believed in determinism and Cartesian logic. I thought I knew what problems our clients were facing, and having seen them many times before, I knew what solutions they called for. For example, inventories were nearly always too high and I knew how to organize a fire sale for obsolete inventory, reduce the number of storage locations, and teach the inventory management folks how to use the reordering algorithm we developed for them. I wanted to sell inventory reduction services as a packaged solution. SAM thought this was the worst idea he’d ever heard. He hated “solutions”.

The Magnificent approached every problem as if he’d never seen it before. He thought the very framing of the problem should come from the customer, not from us. I first thought this was a gimmick (after all, inventories were often too high indeed), but discovered over time that his seat-of-the-pants, make-stuff-up-as-you-go salesman’s demeanor was hiding a true brilliance. “If you keep selling the same thing over and over, you’ll keep doing the same thing and never find new sources of business value.” He thought of the sales function as the rudder of the corporate ship. Later on, when I became charged with the innovation function at my firm, he gave me the best advice I ever received. “You are what you sell” he told me. At first, I did not understand what he meant. A few years later, I realized he was right. What you decide your source of value to your customers ought to be is theory. What you sales people make up on the fly with their account teams and the firm’s resources is reality: the sum of the projects they sell is what defines your company’s offering, your business value and your business model. We are indeed what we sell. This is why sales forces are one of the best sources of innovation and organic growth for companies.

The world has changed much since the days when I worked with SAM the Magnificent. I have tried to track him down without success. The world of sales has changed dramatically with the globalization of strategic account management, the advent of new CRM and social selling technologies and the rise of Big Data. More and more sales forces accept that account management is no longer a staged process, more like a global dance that requires live engagement with customers and the use of analytics. The five basic lessons learned from SAM outlined in this article have become the foundation for the approach now known as co-creation and we have developed frameworks and tools that companies can tap into the power of these innovative sales capabilities. Behind all the conceptual razzle-dazzle though, I know all I have been doing is channeling SAM the Magnificent.

Personal business

January 2nd, 2014


I can’t help it. Some projects get me excited and others don’t. I like teaching or consulting in the agriculture, food, chemicals, manufacturing, and hospital industries. I’ve never been comfortable with automotive, construction, pharmaceuticals, publishing or telecommunication. Sorry for my late admission to all of you who have hired me to work in those industries over the years. My heart was never in it, although my mind was doing its best to hide it. I gave you all I had, but not being able to “feel” those industries made it hard.

I have often wondered why this is the case. Simply put, I have emotional ties to some industries and this makes all the difference. Agriculture reminds me of the wonderful summers of my childhood  I spent on the small family farm in the Vosges Mountains of France, raking hay all day in the summer sun with my brother and sisters for a glass of grenadine and lemonade offered by the tenant farmer in exchange for our labor services. In the evening, we would drink the milk of cows we had shepherded back to their stalls at dusk. I can still remember the taste of this fresh unpasteurized milk and probably owe it the iron stomach which allows me to this day to travel around the world without ever getting sick.

My love of food comes from my French mother who cooked wonderful meals for her husband and four children every day, on top of being a most admired high school teacher. One of my greatest regrets is that I never asked her to teach me how to prepare her boeuf bourguignon or her blanquette de veau. My father did most of the grocery shopping and I often tagged along, asking my dad to add a bag of cookies in the hope it might contain a photograph of the last soccer player still missing in my collection. I love going to Whole Foods and rummage through fruit and vegetables because it reminds me of him. At Christmas, we would go to my grandfather’s house in Northern France and have a réveillon, complete with champagne, oysters, turkey and bûche de Noël. There was not much going on in this austere house in coal-mining country, but food was a feast and the glass of champagne and red wine I was allowed to have made the world into a magnificent place.

At the risk of mixing genres, I also like chemicals because as a German teacher, my father had a friend in Ludwigshafen, home of BASF, now the largest chemical company in the world. He’d periodically visit this teacher colleague of his, and come back with stories of spectacular industrial growth in Ludwigshafen which created envy on the part of his French children to learn about Germany’s economic miracle (the German word for it is the alliterative Wirtschaftswunder, which I repeated to myself like a mantra). I still work with BASF and know my father out there is proud of me. To this date, I love watching economic growth of any kind and have a high tolerance for the environmental cost of this growth, because I have seen how it can take a ravaged country like Germany after World War II and make it whole again.

I like manufacturing because I grew up watching proud textile and paper mills shut down one after the other around me. I remember seeing the hardship those shutdowns created for my high school friends. These plants were unconnected to my school-centric world, but I was curious from an early age on to discover what the dark tall buildings with their smokestacks were hiding. My father was always curious to know where each truck driving by our house was going, so I remember trying to put together an integrated picture of manufacturing in my town. When I finally set foot in my first paper mill much later in life, it was like a revelation, a sense of deep calling, having finally figured out what my life was going to be about.

My interest for hospitals is more recent, the product of having had family members struggle with various ailments. Advocating for patients in life and death situation triggers powerful emotions and I cannot help but feel frustrated in seeing the dominance of left-brained thinking (“the answer is electronic medical records”) when a properly organized group of nurses and doctors in any given hospital could solve immediate patient issues without requiring the large institutional investments currently being made. I will not rest until I have helped transform at least one hospital somewhere in the world.

Like most business people, I masquerade as an analytical, rational person trying to share practices and methodologies that I hope will be of help to others. Deep inside, my energy comes from a secret garden that is uniquely mine. I suspect all of us are like that. One day we will collectively face up to the reality that all business is personal.

Invest in me: the Malden experiment

October 13th, 2013


If diversity is valuable, why aren’t we seeing millions of dollars directed toward it?

For many of us, a strong philosophical belief in the value of diversity translates into a trickle of charity contributions and perhaps some support for diversity-oriented government programs. But if we believed in diversity the way we believe in, say, new technologies, we should see massive amount of private capital finding its way into businesses that rely on diversity for their markets, their work force or their suppliers. And we’re not seeing that. Not even close.

What gives? Either people controlling financial resources do not believe in diversity as a competitive weapon, or there is some inefficiency in the resource allocation system. There’s arguably a bit of both. Many investors are skeptical that diversity matters economically and in all fairness, nobody has yet made a compelling data-driven case for the return on investment (ROI) of diversity.  And for those who believe in diversity, there are few investment vehicles that leverage diversity as a strategy.

And so diversity devolves into this oatmeal of bland corporate statements about the merits of a diverse work force as the firm’s most valuable asset, mandated corporate diversity programs attended by yawning managers eager to return to their daily operational tasks, or minimalist corporate charity programs aimed at diversity-owned businesses.  And so, at the end of the day, business people relieve their guilt by contributing some personal money to causes that may include diversity.

After many years of advocating for co-creation as an economic model from the comfortable perch of my teaching, consulting and public speaking platform, I’ve finally decided to put some of my money where my mouth is (literally, the project is about food). I have become a small-scale venture capitalist. I’ve rallied a few similarly-minded friends and together, we’ve decided to invest a bit of our money in the development of a diversity project. My tougher capitalist colleagues still marvel at being called angel investors. As the place for our proof-of-concept, we have picked Malden, MA, a suburb of Boston with a rainbow of ethnic groups comprising its population and strong business and political leadership. Because there is a budding food tradition there, we have decided to start an industrial kitchen that will house food trucks serving the greater Boston area, an event space that we hope will attract both local youth and foodies from downtown Boston, and we are starting a kitchen incubator that helps local youth become food entrepreneurs through education and financing. This is not a charity, mind you. We want to prove that we can earn an above-market rate of return while helping employment locally and fostering greater sustainability of the local food chain.

This has brought a new joy to my life. In some ways, it is a project like any other, with its cohort of cash-flow statements and competitive analysis, with a new layer of personal financial anxiety. The primary difference, though, is that the people I work with are real, from young high-school immigrant kids applying for the incubator, to heavily tattooed food truck drivers working 14 hours a day, to middle-aged cooks who view us as an opportunity to finally create their own business. I dream of convincing some of the owners of long-established Malden businesses, often with a strong Italian or Irish heritage, to invest with us in the latest generation of Haitian, Moroccan or Jamaican immigrants because they remember how they or their parents did it. I dream of giving local Republicans a platform to demonstrate they can be both good business people and have a social sensitivity, and of allowing Democrats to demonstrate that they also know a thing or two about business development. I want Malden to become the prototype of new economic development for the nation, with business as the primary driver of success, in the great American tradition that attracted me to this country in the first place.

The problems we face are equally real. We’re struggling to find both women and ethnic representatives for our angel investment group. It is not easy to find a suitable building that meets zoning and environmental requirements. Finding financing of the scale we require has its challenges. And bringing together a team of such eclectic background into a common vision for the business is a daily grind.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of the Malden project is that I feel whole again. As Stuart Kauffman describes it, I now feel at home in the universe. It does not get much better than that.