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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Photo Credit: ABC News.

The greatest casualty in any tragedy is division. Division of opinion, division by fear, division by prejudice, division in belief, division by hate.

In division, we remain isolated and paralyzed in a repetitive script of tragedy and loss. History shows us that when we remain divided and isolated we suffer loss, but when we unite in courage, empathy and compromise we all live better lives.

Before we address any other argument, we must address division. That starts within ourselves. We must be humble and courageous enough to examine and re-examine our own values and beliefs, and hold those values and beliefs against the grand template of what is good for all mankind, not just our own lives.

Before we do anything else, let us not descend into division. At the crossroad of retreating into fear or the courage to embrace our unity, know that there is strength, freedom and safety in unity, and only darkness and loss in fear.

Before we do anything else, let us unite.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Well, Hugh Hefner is dead. And that was inevitable I suppose. Jokes about him not “going to a better place” than his gaudy Playboy mansion surrounded by girls a fourth his age are inevitable. But there is more to the story.

People will remember Hefner as one of two bookends; bawdy womanizing robber-baron publicist who exploited women for financial gain and furthered sexist views of women as objects, or gender equality activist and media evolutionary who empowered a generation and gender, legitimized sexual media and celebrated sexuality at the dawn of the sexual revolution.

Those are two deeply contrasted narratives, and they are both accurate.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a photo of herself in a suggestive pose topless on Facebook. She is a mother, an academic, works in a high level executive position and frequently shares photos of her son on the same timeline. My first thought was, “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea to post such a suggestive photo. It may send the wrong message.”

But then I realized, if a man posted a selfie in boxers, flexing his bicep for the camera with a big bed slightly blurry in the background and a woman dozing peacefully sans pajamas it would somehow be… at least slightly, more acceptable. “What a guy!” we may think, sheepishly hitting the “Like” button and telling ourselves, “Well, that guy, he’s a player…” While tinged with a dash of shame and sexism this guy’s sexualized selfie depicting his conquest would still, to this day, be at least somewhat more passable than a woman doing exactly the same.

And then it occurred to me, “Actually, I am the one who is wrong”. My friend’s sexy selfie on Facebook was just fine. It did not detract from her credibility as an executive, it did not color her moral character as a mother- she has proven her mettle as a mother time and again. It did not detract from her in any way. It only added. Because if a man can celebrate his sexual prowess and abundance, a woman can too. And Hugh Hefner legitimized that notion in popular media.

Hefner also objectified women as ornaments. For many, it lead to their ruin. Marilyn Monroe, Shannon Tweed and Anna Nicole Smith were some of the most dramatic train wrecks that Hefner facilitated. Hefner’s penchant for partying at least conspicuously legitimized substance abuse, another loose thread in the moral fabric of our last half century. As a nation, we facilitated it by elevating his publications to, at their peak, a massive media empire. So, say what you want, but we are collectively no better.

For a full accounting of Hugh Hefner’s life click on this photo of him and his associates.

I learned about sex, or at least the physical difference between genders, from a Playboy magazine in a wood shed four blocks from here in my friend Alan Larrazza’s back yard. Even as a pre-teen, Al was a player. Handsome and athletic, the girls swooned over him. I was fat and had acne. The pages of Al’s girlie magazine would be the only boobs I would see until my late teens. There is no doubt those magazines shaped my concept of what is physically attractive. And they did so for millions of men.

I am not exactly certain how today’s adolescent learns about sex and sexuality. Online adult media has become cheaper, more lurid and instantly accessible. You don’t have to ask behind the counter anymore. It’s all out there for free at the speed of an internet connection. As a result, sex has become arguably better, more open, less secretive. Your next-door neighbor’s sexual exploits would likely be remarkable to you, and perhaps yours to them. That definitely is different than five decades ago. Women can ask for sex now, and talk about it. Men who broadcast it are seen more as compensating for some inadequacy now. So, some reciprocal parity has been achieved in the post-Hefner era.

Perhaps in the final summation it is worth acknowledging Hugh Hefner was a character who worked the American system masterfully, to the good and to the detriment. Today his media empire continues, now lead by a woman. That itself is testament to the wild contrasts that are our vastly schizophrenic American Dream.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly felt immensely awkward as his girlfriend made him take a photo with Playmate of the Year.

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

It is beautiful here. Just breathtakingly beautiful. Symmetrically rolling, high hills wear layers of green trees. Between them brilliant, sparkling rivers flow. Majestic bridges cross them, and on them drive trucks and cars. There are farms and churches in the valleys. And this is one of the most beautiful places in all of America.

This happened very recently, and I cannot tell you where I am, but this story is entirely true.

It’s race day. A long adventure race that will take competitors in canoes, on mountain bikes and on foot over challenging terrain for 30-hours non-stop. It’s a tough one, double the length of an Ironman triathlon. To make it tougher, athletes carry all their gear on their backs and have to navigate the course using map and compass.

At the start athletes line up on top of a green grassy rise that slopes down to a crystal river shimmering in the early morning sunrise. Conditions are perfect. People are ready to go, canoes lining the river.

Not many spectators here. Just a few family and race volunteers who followed the athlete buses out to the course. Until today, the location of the start remained secret.

A race volunteer fumbles with the portable P.A. system and an iPod, trying to que up the National Anthem as athletes fidget with bulging anticipation to just get this race going. The scratchy speakers thump and hum, but no anthem. The darn thing isn’t working.

One voice, booming with authority, in the center of the line of athletes and toward the back, where a team leader would position himself to oversee his team and steer the canoe, that one voice rises up.

“Ohh, say can you see…?”

And all other voices are joined in by the end of the next line.

“Through the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

Nearly every person in the race, every team, every member, every volunteer joins in the singing of our National Anthem. Some don’t exactly know the words, they may be young and never learned them, or they may be my age and it’s been a long time since 5th grade, but they fumble through it the way they heard it at a baseball game or on TV or at their kid’s hockey tournament. It sounds pretty good, and it unites the people who, for the next thirty hours will do battle with rough terrain and long distances all the way to the finish.

But the man who started this triumphant chorus will never see that finish line. He will die on the course a few hours from now of natural causes. He was a father, husband, son, Army Ranger, combat veteran and fine man. The people who were with him just before a serious heart problem took him said his last remarks were something like, “It is just so beautiful out here.”

And it was.

One man rose the chorus of our national anthem that race morning. He understood the meaning of that anthem. He knew that to deny our anthem, or our flag, is to deny the things we hold dearest: freedom of speech, liberty, courage. The man who began singing the anthem protected the protester, preserved freedom of speech and expression, risked his life in battle for those ideals and educated himself about the depth and value of their meaning.

He knew what our anthem truly means. It was the last song he ever sang.

I can still clearly hear that last line;

“For the land of the free! And the home… of the… brave!”

Our National Anthem unites us in the principles we hold dearest, it does not divide us along the gritty arguments that punctuate democracy. We argue and protest and disagree and debate because of the ideals celebrated in our anthem.

So, if you are a dissenter, a protester, a contrarian, then sing your anthem louder still. The country it celebrates guarantees your right to voice your opinion. The bombs bursting in air did so to protect your opinion and liberate your will. They will undoubtedly do so again as history’s tragic precedent teaches us.

To not sing our anthem is to cower and live in shadow and ignorance. It is not understanding what those verses stand for. Not standing or singing during the National Anthem is not a protest, it is a misunderstanding of the significance of that song that espouses our basic principles of liberty and free speech.

Not standing does not celebrate our freedom to protest. It only acknowledges our growing vulnerability to ignorance.

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, USAF. 1973-2017.

During the last 72 hours, I’ve written three articles read around the world about the death of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Schultz. They talk about his career, and they guess at his mission at the time of his death.

But they say nothing about the man himself, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

During my research one photo continued to come up. The photo you see here of Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, USAF. It is on hundreds of articles written about him around the world in many languages. He is seated in the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, the Air Force’s newest, most advanced aircraft. I’ve seen that photo a lot over the last few days, but tonight was the first opportunity I had to spend some time looking at it carefully.

Who was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz and what does his life and passing mean to Americans and people around the world? I never met him, at least not that I know of, but I will try to explain what I have learned about him over the last few days to you.

Lt. Col. Schultz earned six degrees including a PhD in aerospace engineering. He had difficulty becoming a pilot because of his eyesight early on, but he did not let that stop him.

Based on what I’ve learned, Schultz never stopped, never gave up. Or, if he did give up once or twice as any human being occasionally does, he gathered himself from whatever setback he had, like his vision preventing the Air Force from initially taking him as a pilot, and then he got back to work. Schultz typified, in every way that I have read, the American ideal. Fortitude, integrity, selfless service, courage and more.

In his final role in the U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Schultz effectively disappeared from normal life. No Facebook page, no LinkedIn page, no Instagram, no Pinterest. He took a job that required him to live and work quietly and honorably well behind the scenes in a role that could sell a million books and pack theaters with its story. But Schultz did all this silently, humbly, with integrity and honor and commitment to something he believed was greater than himself; his country.

However cliché it is to say, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz had The Right Stuff. A modern-day Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong who worked behind the veil of national security doing things we’d likely all find hard to believe. It is an irony of military service and the fickle nature of history that the greatest heroes often remain anonymous. Such is the case with Eric Schultz.

In short, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was a hero and a role model. He is the American ideal. A man made of his own accord, with clear vision of his goals and steadfast resolve to achieve them. His goals were selfless and difficult. Schultz’s service benefitted the Air Force in ways we will likely never read about. His work spanned the globe, took him to war and cemented our ongoing peace at home that we enjoy today.

When internet banter criticizes the cost of a defense program or spins a wild conspiracy theory about the government, it does so on the parchment of a free press that Lt. Col. Eric Schultz silently protected. The delicate balance of peace here within our borders is insulated only by the tireless and quiet toil of the few people like Lt. Col. Schultz. We live and think and speak freely because of their vigilance and dedication. If for one instant you doubt this consider the building pressure that presses inward against our lives from countries like North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and too many more to list. They remain at bay preserving our frail, precious bubble of freedom because of the very few people like Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

I’m privileged to meet and work with the women and men of our Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, Coast Guard and Homeland Security and our intelligence agencies frequently in my job. It is the best part of my job. They elevate me, hold me to a higher standard that I know I can never match. They make me believe in heroes and know that they exist. And they remind me that the simple liberties we so commonly take for granted like weaving tales of possible secret projects in hidden deserts are so tremendously precious, and so incredibly frail. I make it a point to shake the hand of a pilot or a Marine or an aircrew member or a maintainer or a soldier or a sailor when I meet them. I hold their hand tight for a moment, hoping that some of what they have will somehow pass over to me. I have heroes, and they are mine.

I am thankful for heroes like Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, and dreadfully empty when we acknowledge their loss. Their passing weakens the fabric of our nation, makes us vulnerable until someone else steps up to try to stand their place on the wall.

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Yesterday someone whose opinion I value told me, “You hate the government.”

I was stunned by this summation.

I don’t hate the government.” I thought to myself. “In fact, I am often a formal, working part of the government.

Where did this broad stroke about my emotions toward the government come from? What caused it to happen? Why do we create these opaque and rigid summations?

It occurred to me that the most interesting, and I’ll suggest threatening thing, about a four-letter summation of any belief set, any person, any group is that it is convenient. And convenience is comforting.

Living with me is anything but comforting, orderly and convenient. I am a weird guy, given to remarkably reasoned insights, absurdly chaotic ones and everything in between. I hate furniture, love open space, and fill it with a clutter of superfluous gear and books. I am kind to animals, believe in some form of gun control and own guns. I believe in peace but work in an industry whose mission is war. I like the government but believe it should be smaller and more efficient. None of who I am is congruent or follows a convenient narrative. I don’t fit into anyone’s tidy little four-word box. Even if you try to suggest, “Tom Demerly is complicated”, it’s not that simple.

We live in an age of accelerating and proliferating media. And, as with nearly every new technology from the first crude stone age weapons to atomic power to social media, we develop the technology before we develop the mutually acceptable and broadly beneficial ways to employ it.

We think shit up and then figure out how to use it later. People driving while texting on cell phones is one example that comes to mind. The guys who invented the atom bomb are another.

As a result, the acceleration and proliferation of media has created a world of chaotic stimulus filled with billions of new voices, some of them skilled in delivery, all of them screaming at once in what feels like escalating volume and urgency.

The influx of stimulus is deafening and disorienting, and creates a kind of social or collective panic that, on an individual level, may make us yearn to make some de facto sense of it all. We want one thing we can hang onto, one set of things to believe, one unimpeachable, unassailable truth to comfort us and still our cognitive waters.

Imagine a world where the distance from one end to the other of a thirty six-inch, three-foot-long yardstick changed arbitrarily. No two peoples’ yardstick reading thirty-six inches was actually the same length. It would be immensely confusing and chaotic.

Quickly, people would gravitate toward a consensus on the physical dimension of the thing we call a “36-inch, three-foot yard”. The consensus may vary from broad region to region, especially those separated by wide geographical obstacles, like oceans and the metric system in Europe and Asia, and the imperial measures still used in the U.S. But broadly we would gravitate toward an emotionally convenient and culturally necessary convention on the physical dimension we referred to as “one yard, three-feet, 36-inches”. We would all get on the same measuring stick.

The need for a common social and cultural yardstick is what drives belief sets like common religions, desires, hatreds and prejudices. We like, and need, to all be on the same page, and in the chaotic world of fast, evolving media, the pages of modern media blow by like a book tossed in a hurricane.

In Gia Fu Feng and Jane English’s landmark translation of the philosophical masterwork by Lao Tzu, The Tao De Ching, it has been translated from Chinese that:

“All the Colors blind the eye.
All the sounds deafen the ear.
All the flavors numb the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.”

The Tao de Ching was written in about the fourth century B.C. Its origins likely came from even earlier, around the sixth century B.C. and took two centuries to summarize into the cryptic, lyrical haikus that we read today. When you read it, you have to stop and contemplate its meaning and context. It is light in text, heavy on interpretation.

The thesis of this passage from the Tao De Ching is that too much cognitive noise bothers us and may tend to make us gravitate toward the opposite extreme, very defined beliefs that can be distilled into a few words. Simple ideas to make sense of complex stimulus.

The remarkable phenomenon of life has never been as simple as a few words. It is complex. As this complexity is hurled at us in an acceleration and proliferation of media we struggle to make some sense of it. As a result, we summarize and rationalize, trying to cram ideas and people and events into convenient boxes as they come at us faster and faster in a rapidly accelerating and stressful game of cognitive whack-a-mole.

That is impossible. And undesirable. If things were simple, we’d get bored.

I’ll offer that exposure to the “drinking from a fire hose” consumption of social and news media benefits from taking some contrasting time of quiet contemplation, deep research into narrow topics for a more thorough insight and, most of all, strong individual reflection while trying to avoid cramming- and being crammed- into convenient thought boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

1. Preserve Price.

Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels, a successful independent bike retailer in Traverse City, Michigan told me years ago: “Never discount. You will only go out of business slower.”

Price preservation and the perception of what a product is worth has been destroyed by weak-kneed and undercapitalized bike retailers who give discounts too easily.

Sometimes they give discounts in the hopes of attracting more business, but discounted business is bad business, and it only earns the retailer a reputation for being a sucker to customers who drive a hard bargain. And soon they all drive a hard bargain.

Retailers also give discounts just to keep the lights on. Don’t do that. Just close the business, declare bankruptcy and get a job. The entire industry has been dragged down by incestuous and incessant discounting that has destroyed price integrity, brand identity and even alienated customers who don’t want to negotiate.

If there is one malignant cancer that pervades the entire retail bicycle industry, it is rampant discounting. The problem is so bad most retailers who do it are in total denial of it.

Bike industry, take one tip from a guy who has both succeeded and failed for four decades in this business: Stop Discounting.

2. Don’t Play Favorites: No Sponsored Athletes, No Club Discounts. 

When retailers play favorites with some highly visible athletes and groups through “sponsorships” and discounts, they alienate the rank n’ file average customer who subsidizes the cool girl and guy by paying full price. They train the consumership that through performance and visibility they earn special pricing.

This sends a clear message: Some people are more special than others and price is flexible.

Most importantly, there is no consistent, empirical business metric in small bicycle retail that quantifies how many full-margin additional sales are added to the bottom line by sponsoring anyone. And if you can’t accurately measure a sales promotion, you shouldn’t do it.

Sponsorships of athletes and clubs sends a message of favoritism and exclusion, rewarding persistence in driving pricing down.

Even if a sports marketing campaign were run correctly, as it is at the brand level (not by retail stores) it is extremely time consuming and expensive to manage. One beverage industry metric stated that for every $1 spent on sponsorship to automotive racing, the company budgeted $10 talking about the sponsorship in paid media. No bike retailer can afford the money or time for that. And if they could, they should start a beer brand and sponsor a NASCAR driver.

The most recognizable engagement ring brand, Tiffany’s, has never given a free or discounted sparkler to a Kardashian in exchange for publicity. Instead, news media reports, “Kardashian’s Tiffany Sparkler Was $25M!”. That preserves the perception of value and makes the brand aspirational.

3. Don’t Have Too Much Inventory. 

The worst thing about the bike business is bikes, and bike brands ram inventory down retailers’ throats with a vengeance. Bike shops: less is more. It is better to have money in the bank than bikes on the floor.

Bicycle inventory is like fruit, the second it lands it begins to spoil. Something newer, cooler and better is already under development and months away from release. And with the evolution in media the word about upcoming innovations doesn’t spread fast, it spreads instantly. As soon as something new is announced, what is suddenly old (but current only hours before) is suddenly devalued.

Customers will buy new, relevant bikes sight-unseen if the retailer’s sales process is optimized to facilitate that purchase format. That preserves capital, maintains freshness and keeps prices up. It also provides customers with more options and better integrity in the purchase.

Bike shops with a lot of inventory on the floor, and a lot of invoices on their desk, are compelled to “sell what we’ve got” and that leads to an ugly paradigm of putting customers on the wrong size bike with the wrong equipment rather than ordering the right bike and adding another invoice to the pile.

Consumers should be wary of bike shops with too many bikes on the floor, they’re going to try to ram something they have in stock down your throat just to make an invoice due date instead of getting you the bike you should really have.

4. Do Have Lots of Capital.

Nearly every bicycle retailer is undercapitalized and over leveraged financially. The reason is simple: When you have $500K to invest in something, does opening a bike shop provide the highest return on that investment? No, it doesn’t. You could take that $500K to an Edward Jones office and earn a better return on it the next day with no work than if you did the heavy lifting and ditch-digging of opening, promoting and running a bicycle retail store. As a result, most bike retailers try to start a business with about $50-200K and make a go of it.

If they don’t own their own real estate free and clear, have to pay rent or a mortgage, pay at least one employee payroll (and mandatory withholding taxes and health insurance) then the math doesn’t work.

To make bike retail profitable you have to have deep pockets and a deeper work ethic. You have to love hard work and business, not bikes and bike rides.

In its current iteration, the bicycle retail business model is a rotten investment. But, a new, emerging business model long on service and profit margin and short on inventory and overhead is promising and will be the bike shop of tomorrow.

5. Manage Costs.

This doesn’t mean go cheap. If your biggest overhead item is marketing then you are doing it right. If your customers arrive at your store and consistently say, “I thought this place would be a lot bigger”, you’re doing it right.

If you’re biggest overhead item is inventory, you are already in trouble.

Starting and maintaining a bike shop can be done very cheaply. Never buy new fixtures, so many used fixtures from other retailers that have been closed are available they can be had for pennies on the dollar. Never pay for extraneous and non-paying expenses like alarm systems (they won’t prevent or deter theft anyway) and subscriptions to POS software systems. Those don’t add to the bottom line.

Use low-cost, streamlined, highly adaptive and simple systems to combat the asymmetrical retail war the little bike shop has to fight against the big box e-commerce giants. Think of how the Afghan Guerillas used crude weapons to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, and still give the Americans fits in rural Afghanistan. Be a retail guerilla, a retail Taliban. Keep your costs low, adaptable and maintain a large amount of liquid capital.

6. Invest in Star Employees.

The online retailer you compete against is a faceless enemy. You can defeat him with a friendly face. If you have a star employee whom customers consistently ask for, reward them before anything else. Give them raises before you buy more bikes, pay them first and well and craft a set of “golden handcuffs” that makes it tough for them to go anywhere else. They are your brand, and if you lose them, you will have to rebuild your brand around another star employee. Worse yet, if you lose your star employee to another bicycle retailer across town or if your star opens their own shop, guess what happens, their customers follow them.

For a small bicycle retailer, the star employee is the single most important business tool. Develop them, value them, reward them, retain them.

7. Participate in the Sport. 

Instead of sponsoring the local hotshot, be the local hotshot. This doesn’t mean you have to do a nine-hour Ironman (but it helps) it just means you have to be present at events and participate credibly. This is a part of your business. It is work.

Set up the hours of your store so you can train. Close on key race weekends so you can be where the action is, as a part of the action. Ride the nicest bike you sell and show it off everywhere. Be an aspirational figurehead so when people see you on social media and in the store you have become “That Guy who Knows Everything and is Everywhere”.

If you build your hours correctly and manage your staff correctly the time you spend in the sport will directly and measurably bring full-price buyers into your store and keep them offline.

8. Differentiate Yourself. 

Build a voice, a brand and an identity. If your identity is so lifeless and generic that people confuse your business with others, you haven’t done that.

Understand that you will not please everyone. Nor is that the goal. If you talk about a donation to a wounded veteran’s charity in social media an anti-war activist may stop shopping with you. Fine. You can’t be everything to everyone.

Build your brand with clear vision and narrow focus. Don’t be generic. Don’t appeal to the masses. Keep your brand message narrow, unique and focused and be true to who you are.

If you are gay, fly the rainbow flag in front of your store and sponsor “Pride Rides”. If you are a veteran, have benefits for veteran’s organizations. If you are an animal rights activist, broadcast your donations to the local animal shelter and host an adoption day at your store. If you are an environmentalist, show your commitment to renewable energy and talk about how bikes preserve the environment.

Have the courage and identity to stand for something, be someone different and special. Brand yourself visibly and distinctly.

9. Be Highly Adaptive.

 Small bicycle retail is asymmetrical warfare: A small opponent taking on a much larger, better capitalized foe. Take a page from the teachings of Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Osama Bin Laden’s play book: Never fight fair.

Change your floorplan frequently. Bring in small, low-priced, easily purchased new products first. Seek out niche brands the big-box guys don’t have and use the equalizing power of social media to partner with the brand to promote them.

Build a reputation as a brutal buyer who torments sales reps and sales managers with non-adherence to “program” buying. If the biggest brands’ credit manager loves you but the sales manager hates you, you are doing it right.

Within your brand identity continue to change and adapt. Use every social media platform. Embrace new media. Use video. Never stop changing, evolving and promoting. There are two types of businesses on the retail battlefield: the quick and the dead. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

10. Have An Exit Strategy.

One day, this will all end. What will you have to show for it? Did you squirrel away money in an offshore account? Did you buy real estate? Is your brand developed enough to have some sales value? And, if you begin to fail, and chances are overwhelming that you will, do you have a viable safety net?

It’s a pipe dream to sell a small bicycle retail business. Frankly, they aren’t worth anything. The inventory is usually older than six months, the fixtures are stale, the employees may not come with the deal and rest can be reinvented elsewhere better and cheaper. As a result, you have to have a viable exit strategy.

What is yours? What is your end game? When do you cry “Uncle” and walk away? Know those answers in advance and you can sleep more soundly at night as a bike retailer.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Business rewards bastards. And Seton Claggett was never a bastard.

TriSports.com in Tucson, Arizona is closing after 17 years of being one of the largest, and one of the first, online triathlon retailers. TriSports.com helped invent, define, and then sink the triathlon industry.

What happened to TriSports.com is happening to all of the triathlon and high-end bicycle business, and it is worth looking at.

Seton Claggett, TriSports.com founder and President, messaged me early today with insights on why the business is closing:

“We are closing because I was in litigation with the bank that caused me to go into BK11 4+ years ago. We went to trial on breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fraud. The judge ruled last week that the bank committed all of these but ultimately did not cause us any damages. I now owe them the original $1.8M (most of this would have been paid off by now) plus millions in attorney fees and costs.”

There will be a rush to judgment about what caused TriSports.com to close. Set against Claggett’s disclosure of bank litigation I’ll suggest it was not any singular reason that TriSports.com is closing, but rather a creeping, gradual, decade-long “death by a thousand cuts” that pervades an industry populated by people who like bikes and triathlons first, and do business second. Even though Claggett was not that man- he is a formally trained and gifted businessman- the rest of the industry weighed on pricing and distribution strategies. The Internet experts will have their say, but it’s unlikely many of them will understand the real reasons TriSports.com is closing and the industry as a whole is suffering.

The people still in the bike and triathlon business will pay no heed as the industry continues to contract and fails to adapt under the ruthless crush of economic reality and accelerating business change. I know because I have been one of those people- a business owner, and I did not change, so I know firsthand.

You can’t tell a small business owner anything. I’ve tried with four businesses I worked for; people tried it with me when I owned my own business before that. We never listen.

Until we lose everything, you can’t tell us anything.

I’ve seen five other bicycle and triathlon retailers ride their businesses into the ground. TriSports.com is just the biggest of us to close. It’s the 9/11, the Black Tuesday, the Automotive Recession, the Chernobyl, the Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island of the triathlon retail industry. Once the fallout clears, the industry will be radioactive for years and will only be habitable by ego-driven mutants of the small business world deformed by their bizarre and nonsensical toxic obsession with a sport and a “business” that eats its young, then consumes itself as their internal voice tells them, “I am the one who can get this right”.

They’re wrong. The triathlon business is no longer viable on any significant scale beyond hobby. There are a lot of reasons for that, enough to fill a book.

If you want a single narrative to the complex issue of triathlon business failings, then call it the same thing triathletes suffer from as a culture: hubris. I will, however, suggest that in the case of Seton Claggett and TriSports.com, he is a rare man largely immune to hubris.

I worked at TriSports.com for over two years in their bicycle, then marketing department. One memory of many defines the experience:

The employees of TriSports.com are high in the Arizona mountains outside the sleepy town of Show Low, Arizona. It’s a town named after a bet two prospectors made over a gold strike in the area. Both of them lost. We’re putting on the annual Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival, a series of endurance races in the high, wooded area surrounding Show Low.

Most of the about-50-person staff from TriSports.com drove from Tucson to Show Low, Arizona to help put on the Show Low Triathlon Festival. It’s a massive annual multisport event with kids’ races, various distance triathlons, an off-road triathlon and an orgy of the triathletes’ favorite endurance activity, getting free stuff. The event concludes with a giant raffle benefitting charity where tons, and I mean tons, of triathlon gear and schwag are given away for a charity donation- about the same volume of stuff sold in a small triathlon store in a year. But this is TriSports.com, and we are the largest. So, we can afford to give away tons of stuff for free people probably would have bought at full price anyway.

After the festivities are over it is time to clean up.

It’s hot out and Seton Claggett is addressing us while standing chest deep in disgusting, reeking garbage inside a trash hauling semi-trailer. Every one of us is exhausted, filthy, smelly, sore, hungry and sleep deprived.

“If we leave this mess here it goes against everything we stand for.” He tells our downtrodden mass of long-faced employee volunteers as the sun sags. It’s like a scene in a book about forced labor camps. This is the triathlon industry gulag, and I am exiled here like a less-intellectual retail Solzhenitsyn banished to the labor camps for my own personal failings in this business. Like Cool Hand Luke, I gotta get my mind right.

A key tenant of TriSports.com is environmental responsibility, and cramming all this garbage into the back of a couple semis to dump in a landfill is against Seton Claggett’s molecular make-up as an environmentalist, former boy scout, parent and business owner. It is against the Little Red Book of TriSports.com doctrine.

Despite the sickening, nose-permeating stench of rotting banana peels under the high Arizona sun, dirty bottles filled with congealing sports drinks, discarded race equipment soaked in athlete urine, changed diapers from spectators’ toddlers and all the other disgusting offal produced by a couple thousand athletes and their closest friends, Seton wants us to sort the garbage by hand into bins for environmentally responsible recycling and processing.

Claggett is clamped onto the ethos of environmental responsibility like the face-hugger in “Alien”. The Claggetts have two kids, and Seton’s life mission is to leave the world a better place than he found it for those kids, and for everyone else. Seton and Debbie Claggett’s unswerving attachment to environmentalism isn’t corporate feel-good window dressing. They own it. Environmental responsibility and a doctrine of leaving things better than you found them is in Claggett’s DNA, and he has cloned it into the corporate DNA of TriSports.com and its culture. Not to sell more stuff, but because Claggett doesn’t just believe it’s the right thing to do, he knows it is the right thing to do.

And now he stands chest deep is piss-smelling filth to prove it. And prove it he does.

One by one employees slowly churn into action, pulling trash bags out of the back of the disgusting mess, opening the garbage bags, pulling out discarded wet wipes with… something brown on them. It’s not just gross, it’s fucking gross. But Claggett somehow walks the walk with enough conviction he inspires the entire staff to wade into the offal and begin sorting the revolting mess into neatly organized recycling barrels.

Claggett somehow inspires a crew of tired, volunteer employees to sort filthy garbage by hand in the dark after consecutive 14-hour workdays. Show me a leader strong enough to inspire that, and I will show you Seton Claggett.

A couple hours later, in the dark, we stink like hell and the world is a slightly better place. Claggett himself is covered in filth, and the last to stop working. I have found a new hero.

The Claggetts defined themselves repeatedly with acts of generosity and kindness both large and small. When Seton saw me riding my bike to an airshow loaded down with camera equipment early one weekend morning he secured a pass for me to the Air Force base and took me with him to a private air show during the Heritage Flight Conference at Davis-Monthan AFB. When my cat Frederick died of old age Debbie had every employee sign a sympathy card for me. I still have that card.

The charity and giving doctrine of the Claggetts was infectious. It spread like a smiley-faced plague through the building. After riding my bike to work one day in a rare Tucson downpour the Human Resource Director, a woman named Susan, found dry clothes for me to put on and a towel. When I obsessively worked 70-hour weeks she counseled me for working too many hours.

But heroes are fallible and complex, and Seton Claggett is no exception. Claggett was oddly fixated on loading the dishwasher in the employee kitchen correctly. He produced a YouTube tutorial video on the correct procedure, lectured employees at meetings on the correct process and even installed a video camera over the dishwasher to verify compliance. Where did that come from? I chalk it up to Claggett’s penchant for clear thinking and process. He is a smart man, a man of organized thought, spreadsheets and analytical problem solving. To him it is incomprehensible that a person could not load a dishwasher correctly, and that detail mattered. It was a teachable moment.

The dishwasher conundrum.

The story of TriSports.com and the rise and fall of the triathlon industry deserves to be told. It’s a complex story not well suited for Internet chat room fodder. It is more complex, both worse, and better. It doesn’t fit in a 1300 word blog.

If Seton Claggett had opened a software company, an app developer, a social media outlet or any other emerging business I’ll suggest we would mention his name alongside Gates, Jobs, Buffett and Zuckerberg. Claggett is a tirelessly hard-working man with a Masters in business and a deep, analytical mindset and strong stomach for risk. Unfortunately for him his first round of entrepreneurship was spent on an industry filled largely by people long on enthusiasm for the sport, too quick to give a discount and short on business acumen.

I wager Seton Claggett’s next round at business will conclude very differently.

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