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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

April 3, 2018. Tuesday. 

Winter hangs on like dampness caught in an old curtain. Under the tight, chilling grip of low cloud I walk the neighborhood in the early morning before sunrise while people wonder what it is I am looking for, stopping on the sidewalks to peer between houses and up driveways. Either one of them could be anywhere, and they are much better at hiding than I am at finding them. Their lives depend on that.

A man messages me. He has seen one of the cats at 5:36 AM. That next morning I am out searching. Batteries are charged, new memory cards are installed. The remotely triggered night vision cameras go out. Our yard is transformed into a feline version of a surveillance state. No cat, no animal, no leaf blowing can cross the yard without setting off the infra-red night vision cameras.

The two feral cats appeared last year and I found them interesting, then fascinating, then more remarkable than I had imagined possible. They created a secret society under our noses and re-ordered the local outdoor food chain, eliminating rodents, chasing pet cats back to their homes where they belong and policing the dark like a secret feline security force while setting order to an evolving suburban wilderness most people don’t realize exists.

There were two of them. One has disappeared.

“Mike Charlie 2” or “Mysterious Cat 2” went on to be formally named “Blackie”. He got his nom de guerre the way any shadow warrior does, against his will and under duress. I had enlisted the help of the local animal shelter’s trap and release program, captured Mike Charlie 2 with the intention of putting him through their trap and release program. But I made a huge mistake. I sat with him in silence, he in his cage, me outside in mine. As I looked at him, I realized, he could exist outside his cage, was born to live outside, had the courage and resourcefulness and cunning and stamina to live outside it. I only step out of my cage occasionally, and even that is more than most people.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

Trap and release feral cats that are immunized and neutered have their ear tip clipped to signify they have been through the program. Mike Charlie 2 was perfect. I did not want his ear clipped. Instead I paid to have him micro-chipped, neutered, immunized and returned to me, where I would set him free again. In no uncertain terms Mike Charlie made it clear he would never be an inside cat. Nothing about him was domestic. Mike Charlie 2 left our house with an official name, “Blackie”, given to him at the animal shelter. He also had an implanted micro-chip, number 956 000 010 017 739. I even enrolled him in pet health insurance in case he needed another vet visit. It was as though, for a short time, he had entered “The Matrix”. But then, like a feline version of Neo, he took the red pill to return in the real world.

Blackie stayed around for a while after we did the trap and release. He ate outside with us, seemed to be getting more comfortable with us. Our indoor cats loved him, lined up at the windows to see him. Then one day he disappeared. That was in late December. We haven’t seen him since. We’ve been to shelter, posted notices, passed out flyers. I found a dead black cat on Ford Rd. north of here and sheepishly took it to the animal shelter to have its poor, broken body scanned for a micro-chip in case it was Blackie. No chip. We gave the unknown cat a decent burial in our backyard.

There have been three reports of a mysterious black cat south of the large park, Levagood, that separates our neighborhood. This week my early morning search will move south to that area. Maybe…

While the search for Blackie has been fruitless we have welcomed back his accomplice, Mike Charlie 1, who actually has a name and, as we learned this week, a home. Not just any home, Mike Charlie 1, whose real name is Darth Vader, lives in the most famous home in all of Dearborn, The Kingsbury Castle. It is a fitting home for such a regal animal.

Darth Vader lives with the Marusak family who has lived at the Kingsbury Castle for decades, since I was a kid. The house is a local landmark. The Marusaks have done an excellent job maintaining the property and keeping up the entire appearance of the neighborhood, along with property values. Following their lead, many new, larger houses are being built in the North Levagood neighborhood. When anyone asks where we live in Dearborn, all I have to say is, “One house away from The Castle”.

Darth Vader’s home, the Kingsbury Castle, one house east of our house.

I’ve had several conversations with Darth Vader. He is a dignified and reserved cat, gentle and calm. He visited our house in these surveillance videos when he noticed the buffet we had laid out in hopes of attracting Blackie back to the area. Darth is well fed at home though, and only picks at the food left for Blackie, leaving the lion’s share behind in hopes that Blackie returns. Darth Vader also searches for Blackie, sitting on high vantage points along our street and gazing to the south, where we believe Blackie vanished to.

In one of these videos Darth Vader marks our outdoor cat feeding house with the scent from the corner of his mouth, effectively leaving a note for Blackie if he returns, “Call me Sir. We all miss you greatly.”

If you see a cat you believe may be Blackie, phone me at (313) 400-0150, email tomdemerly@yahoo.com or message me here. 

The Missing Mr. Blackie, Micro Chip 956 000 010 017 739.

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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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By Tom Demerly and Jan Mack for tomdemerly.com

An elderly man and woman driving eastbound on Hines Drive under Telegraph Road in Dearborn Heights were rescued from serious injury or worse after a crash and vehicle fire on Wednesday, June 14, at approximately 5:15 PM by passing cyclists Nate Nalder, 41, of Dearborn, Michigan and friend Dave Taylor.

Nalder, an experienced road cyclist who frequently trains along Hines Drive, told us, “Dave Taylor and I were riding down Hines, going west. Just after we passed under Telegraph we saw a white, late model Ford Fusion driving across the lawn on the other side of the walking path. It was moving fast across the grass, maybe 45-50 MPH. It came back toward Hines, we heard a loud ‘boom’ and the car rolled three times.”

An unidentified male was driving the vehicle with a female in the passenger seat. The occupants of the vehicle were described as “elderly”. According to witnesses at the scene of the accident, a medical incident may have affected the driver. The cause of the accident has not been officially determined.

When cyclist Nate Nalder saw the accident happen he turned back toward the place where the vehicle came to rest. “I hurried and checked the traffic real quick and rode back to the car and dropped my bike and ran there to the driver’s side and pounded on the window.”

Nalder was attempting rescue from the driver’s side door, but heard a voice from the passenger side shout, “Help me, I’m trapped, get me out of here.”

The airbags in the vehicle had deployed and the interior filling with smoke. The vehicle began burning shortly after it came to rest.

“I said, ‘We got to get them out of here!’ said Nalder, directing rescue efforts of bystanders.  “I did not know the extent of his injuries so I asked him to undo his own seatbelt to kind of assess his condition. Myself and two others guys helped him out and walked him over and set him down.”

As the fire spread, and without regard for his personal safety, Nalder returned to the burning vehicle to recover the female passenger and move her to a safe distance. Another cyclist had arrived on the scene to assist Nate Nalder and Dave Taylor in the rescue. A passing motorist had stopped on the scene and phoned 911 for assistance.

It is possible that, because of the age of the vehicle occupants and the possible medical condition of the driver, the swift selfless actions of Nate Nalder and Dave Taylor at the scene prevented more serious injury from the fire or fatalities as a result of the crash and fire.

According to the account Nalder heard from the passenger of the vehicle, who was transported from the scene by emergency personnel, the driver lost the ability to control the vehicle, possibly due to a medical incident. The passenger was able to grab the steering wheel but could not control the pedals because the driver’s legs were in the way. The passenger steered the vehicle off the road away from other cars but could not control the speed of the vehicle. It struck a pole and rolled several times.

Cyclist Nate Nalder, 41, of Dearborn, Michigan and friend Dave Taylor rescued motorists from a burning vehicle on Hines Drive on Wednesday.

When we asked cyclist Nate Nalder what made him decide to respond by pulling the victims from the burning car and how he had learned to respond to an accident situation he told us:

“When I was younger in high school I was riding in the back seat of a Jeep and came over a hill and accidentally hit a friend who was walking across the street. I just jumped out and helped. It was the automatic thing to do I guess. I grew up being a Boy Scout, doing a lot of lifeguarding classes and learning CPR. Just learning how to take care of a person when they are hurt. Something just said, ‘Get over there and do what you can to help because no one else was’ I was the first person to that car I guess.”

The quick, selfless actions of Nate Nalder and Dave Taylor at the accident scene almost certainly prevented further injury to the two vehicle occupants once the car began burning.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com


 It was like the beginning of a favorite new song. It began quietly, and you could barely hear it. The soft cooing of a distant sound, a trilling that seemed reassuring and comforting. The world was safe. Everything was all right. It was home and warm and nature surrounded our little neighborhood. I listened to it in bed, shushing my girlfriend with our heads on the pillows, “Listen!” I whispered. There was silence in the dark. Then the gentle spring breeze carried the rising song. “It’s an owl! Can you hear it?” She did. “That’s a good sign. They trap mice and are good for the environment and the neighborhood. He probably lives at the end of the block down by the park.”

We drifted off to sleep to his quiet, lilting song. It made for an easy transition to dreams of rolling, wooded hills filled with friendly owls building nests, cooing their gentle songs while sitting on tree branches as wise, powerful sentinels maintaining the delicate balance of nature.

The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is a relatively common small owl species found throughout the Midwest and into Canada. It eats mice, rodents, and has adapted well to a suburban environment.

Owls are oddly social and friendly birds to humans. One very early morning a few years ago in Mission Viejo, California I saw an owl swoop down, glance off the windshield of an SUV driving in the early morning darkness, then drop into the street. I walked over to him, he appeared stunned in the middle of the street but otherwise, hopefully, OK. I spoke to him for a moment, asked him if he was OK. His feathery owl head pivoted to my voice. He looked confused, stunned. I scooped him up carefully in my arms, his soft feathers delicate to the feel.

I don’t know how to take care of an owl. I figured I would bring him home, get him a drink and make a little nest for him and take it from there. He was large, the size of a small cat, and very beautiful. He was also exceptionally well mannered, riding in my arms comfortably as if he knew I was trying to help.

In only a block of walking he had composed himself from the brush with calamity. He spread his wide wings carefully even as I held him, then gently lifted off with a downward flap and flew out of my arms. He did one circle over my head, as if to demonstrate he was fine and say thank you for the help, then he flew east up toward the mountains on the outskirts of town. Helping the owl felt like religion. It was like being visited, and blessed, from another world. A kinder, fairer world.

When I heard the owl outside our window here in Dearborn, Michigan I was elated. This is a great omen, a sign that our neighborhood is blessed and safe and well looked after. That things are in balance and that nature and mankind have arrived at a reasonable détente.

But then reality smashed home.

The quiet song disappeared. The owl was found in the street, his eyes barely open, standing on the ground. Confused, sick, in deep trouble.

A Good Samaritan named Jamie found the owl in the street a few days later around 10 PM. She said he was half dead. She picked him up, called the University of Michigan Emergency Veterinary Hospital. She was on the phone with them, getting instructions for how to save the owl as she held him in her arms. He opened his eyes once and she spoke to him as she held him. Then he closed his eyes.

They never opened again.

The owl in our neighborhood died because someone put out rat poison to try to control mice. But the problem with poison is it doesn’t know to only kill mice. It kills everything. The mouse eats the poison, the owl eats the mouse. The owl dies too. And we are left in a world without the owl’s song. It’s a world different than intended. A world that is ruled by our poison, literal and moral.

Using poison to control animals is wrong and immoral. We learned that in the 1950’s and ’60’s with DDT poisoning, and countless times since. It’s also ineffective and short-sighted. The owl was in charge of controlling rodent populations and did an effective job. He maintained a manageable balance of nature. When that is disrupted the results are always different than we imagine, and never better. But our human, insatiable need to control things drive these short-sighted and selfish decisions like using poison to kill a mouse.

You can buy things and you can build things. A fancy house, a yard that looks like a golf course. It proves you are rich and fancy. But you are driving a wedge into the world that pries things apart and ruins what was here before us and will hopefully return when we are gone. We are not better or smarter or stronger or more important. We’re temporary participants in a complex process. When we upset the process we spread suffering, not only to animals around us but to our own lives, often without even know it.

When I think of the most important events in my life, the most extraordinary, the most valuable and lasting they are not the day I bought a car or a house. I actually don’t remember much about those things. But I remember the owl in the street in California. I remember the song of the owl down the block. These things had value. They reminded me that I am part of something bigger and that, if I care for it, it will care for me.

But when the owl down the street went silent I suddenly felt very alone.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

This past Presidential election was one of the most divisive and closely contested in the past three decades. We’re still arguing about the outcome. It was set against a backdrop of new participant media. Everybody with social media has a voice of equal visual size, if not reach.

Because of this our closely contested and highly divisive election played out over the stage of social media. And now it feels like we’ve entered an era of rising hysteria.

Why?

From the printing press, the Manhattan Project, the Internet, stem cell research, and social media, we develop technology before we develop the ethics and conventions to employ it with moderation and reason. We just turn it loose, and hope for the best. We’re experiencing that now with social media and in politics.

We’ve entered an era of more polarized and less moderate opinion shared at louder volume than I’ve known in my 55-year lifetime, and maybe in the history of mankind. Author/philosopher Alan Watts once recounted a tour of the MIT campus where the vast and numerous science and engineering facilities were showcased with pride and grandeur, but when someone asked where the philosophy department was, the response was, “Oh, I think it is somewhere over by the library.”

Some of that may be good. But a lot of it isn’t. At least not yet.

There is an axiom that if you redistribute the collective monetary wealth of the planet equally between all people it will, over time, wind up right back with the people who originally had it, and away from those who didn’t.

But what if you equally distributed access to publishing media? To having a public voice? The same outcome might happen in contributory/social media, and for the same reasons. People may not use it responsibly and with reason. So, just as those who would not be good at managing monetary resources would fall victim to those who are, those who do not use communicational resources responsibly will stop getting listened to and lose their voice to those with more judicious use of media. But before they do lose their voice they raise the volume and frequency in one last, desperate attention grab.

We are at the leading edge of that redistribution of voice right now. Everyone has a voice now, and most people love using it, but aren’t quite sure what to say except that they should say something. And, in a new global room full of rising voices we continue to shout louder and louder to be heard above the rising din. And few people take the time to listen. I’m constantly reminded of that great axiom, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The formerly mainstream news media is included in the rising number and volume of voices and opinions. In order to compete with Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, Snapchat, and Instagram attention grabbing, the formerly mainstream media has had to change to also grab attention. Much of that change isn’t for the better. That has influenced our own behavior, but mostly it has influenced theirs. For mainstream media now, it looks and reads like, the rules are, there are no rules.

So the shouting gets louder and louder, more and more frequent. And as the frequency increases the depth of insight seems to become shallower, more superficial. Sound bytes, YouTubes, hotlinks and infographics are batted back and forth in some new form of cyber argument that mimics a fast and loose version of the Greek forums, where debate raged between scholars in a public forum.

We’ve seen two examples of this in the ongoing, divisive political narrative. Some time ago an expired rock star, Ted Nugent, ignited rancor with radical right commentary that included inciting violence as a political tool. That’s wrong, no matter the political agenda. Every despot has proved that. More recently, an equally less relevant celebrity, Kathy Griffin, depicted the President’s decapitated head in a sensational lampoon that also suggested inciting violent response as a political tool, at least as commentary. That is also wrong.

Both are wrong. Both went too far. Both are a sensational attention grab for a waning career. And both sides argue some justification for each one’s bizarre and extreme political commentary. Both also illustrate our use- or misuse- of new access to media and our rising consumption of it.

One positive outcome has been the impetus to do more investigation into the media we see. That has been fascinating. It’s also helps shape opinions, hopefully to the more informed. And I’ll suggest a more informed opinion is likely to be more structurally sound.

Before the last presidential election I took an online survey that queries you on a long list of issues and, depending on your responses, prescribes who you should vote for. I got Bernie Sanders. I liked that, so I dug a little deeper into the ramifications of having Bernie Sanders as our President.

Voting for President is a little like going shopping without knowing any of the prices. The system tells you, “Pick out something nice, whatever you want.” But there are no prices and you may not even know how much you have to spend. You don’t get the bill until after you made it to the register. If you can’t afford what’s in your political shopping cart you either throw it on a charge card that has been maxed out since Nixon was President or you say, “The person in line behind me is paying.” Then they do that for the next person, and so on…

Increasingly, being in the middle seems to feel oddly isolated as the rising din to “pick a side” on social media gets louder and louder. It seems like the social media doctrine is to pick a side lock, stock and barrel- a political “Happy Meal” that includes a somewhat superficial acceptance of all or nothing from one side or the other. We only get a second to read, to decide, to respond. We may have learned something a long time ago in school, and we do remember part of that, so we quickly compare what we see to what we know and then we hit “post”. God forbid we should actually question, criticize, and inquire. And when we disagree, we need to be ready for the attempts to be shouted down.

I’m satisfied looking at the political and social landscape ala Carte though, and I’d like to know what it is I’m reading and where it came from- to the extent I can.

The outcome of this last election was about as wild a swing from one extreme to the other as you can get. The only way we could be farther from who we had as a former President would be to have elected an albino Margaret Thatcher with male reproductive organs. So things are pretty crazy right now.

The choice we have now is to make use of social media as a shield to paint our existing beliefs on and protect our entrenched views from the swords of new thinking, or as a mirror to reflect our own beliefs in the concern that we may have a big political booger hanging out of our nose.

I’m checking my own nose now. I suggest you do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

bikeshopdentist

Was at the dentist today. $2,297.00.

My dentist is excellent. Truly. Does a fine job, professional and current on modern dental techniques. Great staff. Nice guy too.

As luck would have it my dentist is also a triathlete. While I was at his office I picked up his bike and brought it back to our bike shop to do a tune-up on it. He’s got a nice bike. He should.

I got to thinking: Why can my dentist command $2500 for services, but I will only bill him about $90-150 for his bike tune-up that takes about the same time? And before you argue that your teeth are a serious “health issue” I will suggest that your bike brakes are too when you need to avoid a collision with a car.

Why is the bike industry unable to command prices for service and products commensurate with other industries? Why is a doctor, a dentist, a plumber, an HVAC repairperson or an auto mechanic so much more expensive to hire than a bike fitter, bike salesman or bike mechanic?

Why are similar things so cheap in the bike industry, when they are priced consistently higher in other industries?

Like any single economic question, there is not one singular answer. It is worth inventorying the reasons why the bike industry, benchmarked against other industries, is habitually under-charging- especially for service- despite growth in demand and technology in cycling.

U.S. culture teaches us bicycles are children’s toys. Labor rates for servicing a Jet Ski, motorcycle, snowmobile or an RV are similar to automotive repair rates. But fixing a bike is something we grew up doing in our driveway. Our value calibration of bicycle service starts in our driveway as a kid. Because the bicycle industry as a whole remains largely unsophisticated compared to Apple and Tiffany’s stores, that value calibration of bike retailers remains lower than other consumer experiences.

bike shop kids

What can the bike industry do to change the perception that bikes are toys and labor should be cheap or free? There are a few answers, but the most apparent are to provide a more modern and sophisticated presentation of services and an updated visceral customer experience congruent with newer high-end client services and retail.

Let’s go back to my dentist’s office.

Days before my appointment I always receive a text message reminder from his office. They also phone me and leave a message with a reminder.

The dentist’s office has a trained receptionist, a “Concierge”, who coordinates services, attends to questions and generally administers logistical concerns with patients. It is her only job- to facilitate a smooth and pleasant transaction. She also handles the payments. The entire payment process is segregated to a different staff, a different physical location in the building. This helps solidify the payment experience as finite, non-negotiable, consistent and repeatable.

My dentist’s office is clean and modern, beginning with the exterior of the building. The signage and everything that transmits his brand message is attractive. His treatment spaces are spotlessly clean and meticulously arranged, not only for obvious sanitary reasons, but also to transmit the impression that this is serious business.

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Bike shops, by comparison, are less formal places where employees dress in shorts and T-shirts and customers “hang out”. You act how you dress, and you charge how you dress too. The vibe in bike shops is decidedly less professional, and consequently, so are the prices.

For these and other reasons my dentist can command $2500 for a service that takes about the same time and experience as rebuilding his Shimano Di2 carbon fiber triathlon bike. He collects more than ten times the revenue I do for a service that is more similar than dissimilar. And remember my analogy about your bike brakes being as important as your cavities when you’re riding toward an intersection at 20 MPH.

And before old timers argue that a more polished, cleaner, professional approach won’t work in bike shops, I will argue that it likely will, since most adult cycling customers are actually new cycling customers whose benchmark of what a customer experience should be is formed in retailers like IKEA, Apple, Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie– not hanging out with the guys at the local bike shop. In fact, it is likely the only bike consumers that still want a homy, small-town, casual “buddy-buddy” personal feel to bike is the guy behind the counter, not the customer in front of it.

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Change channels.

Tiffany’s is a high-end jeweler made famous by the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and is still famous for a few reasons, one of which is their iconic “Tiffany blue” (trademarked) brand color. Buy any engagement ring of a given size at Tiffany’s and it is roughly ten times the price of an equivalent sized ring from the corner jeweler. It also carries a consistently higher perception of worth and brand identity.

From 2007 to 2015 Tiffany’s revenue grew 60.49% according to Morningstar.com. That is despite the brutal recession in the U.S.

How does Tiffany’s command a price often ten times higher than an apparently comparable product and still increase sales, even during the recession?

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There are several reasons my dentist and Tiffany’s can command more revenue for seemingly similar services and products to the adult cycling industry.

Firstly, they ask for it. And dress for it.

Setting price immediately establishes a value calibration. When I lived in the Middle East I noticed this value calibration is often highly nuanced. The Arabs (and Chinese) invented commerce as we know it today. They know, unless you ask, you will never get the price you want.

Tiffany’s has also established uniqueness and differentiation through their fortunate product placement in a popular old movie and in every brand message they send, right down to their packaging and bags. When a person walks through a high-end shopping mall with a Tiffany blue bag in their hand, it not only calibrates our perception of the customer as affluent and discerning, it also spreads the brand message of Tiffany’s. It’s advertising. And it bolsters our impression of the customer.

By comparison most bicycle retailers use customer bags that look like you should empty a cat litter box in them.

Tiffany’s also maintains a quiet, reverent display and sales environment. A salesperson in Tiffany’s is never interrupted by a telephone ringing on the sales floor. Phone calls to the stores are answered off the sales floor. A phone never rings in the shopping spaces.

Change channels.

e-Bay is backwards retail. People list items, often used, sometimes of dubious value, on e-Bay and consumers compete upward for price in the auction format. Think about that: compete upward.

 Why do people compete upward for price on e-Bay when normal market forces exert downward pressure on pricing in retail?

Two reasons: Time component and repeatability of transaction quality (different from item quality).

e-Bay auctions end at a specific time, and the expiration of an item’s availability manipulates our perception of its value. e-Bay is also competitive since supply on unique items is finite and limited. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Both of those components exert an opposite competitive effect on pricing.

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The quality of the transaction on e-Bay is almost always identical. This is different than the conduct of the seller and the quality of the item being sold/purchased. But it makes a case that the quality of the transaction (separate from the item in the transaction) is a key driver in our perception of price.

If the transaction experience is inconsistent and/or below industry standards it devalues the purchase price. Buy an antique figurine at a local resale shop, pay $10 for it. Buy the exact same figurine on e-Bay, pay $20, $25, $40…. Whatever the final bid is. People negotiate upward in a proven, repeatable transactional template with finite constraints on supply and uniqueness rather than commodity.

How can bike shops leverage these strategies to improve both the customer experience while raising revenues and profits?

The good news is there are tons of opportunities for the bike industry to provide a better experience for its customers. Of course, the reciprocal is that our current standard of customer experience is poor and lagging behind professional offices and forward thinking retail brands like Tiffany’s, Apple and others. Still, this creates a massive “empty space” where bike retailers could be earning more and providing a better experience.

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Step One: Recalibrate the Bike Shop Experience.

Why do you stand in line at a cash register when paying for a $5000 bike when you sit in a comfortable chair at an automotive dealership or at Tiffany’s to pay for your car or engagement ring?

Seated checkout in a non-cash/wrap setting is a small but significant step in recalibrating customer’s experience and perception of what it is to shop at a specialty bike retailer.

Having one staff member in each shift designated as the “Concierge” who greets, directs customer traffic and may also administer the customer checkout experience during slow traffic hours is another key experience quality feature that recalibrates customers’ perception of our industry.

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There are many, many other opportunities for bicycle retail to improve the customer experience by changing the transaction environment and appearance and also by adding tangible value to adult bike sales and service.

In fact, there are enough for me to fill a book with.

A problem in the bike industry is that few bike retailers and service providers are benchmarking outside our industry for ways to make the experience better in our industry. Until that changes, we’ll keep hanging out with our customers before and after shop rides in cool shorts drinking expensive beer while earning cheap wages.

“Nobody knows the future, you can only create the future.” Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba.com.

By Tom Demerly.

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A couple years ago I moved back to Michigan from California to start a new business. I went to Costco with friend Sue Nichols Riegle.

I needed coffee filters for my old coffee machine. Costco only sold them in a 1000-count pack. That’s 1000 pots of coffee. A lot of coffee.

If you make one pot of coffee every day that will last you 2 Years, 8 Months, 3 Weeks, 5 Days, 11 Hours, 33 Minutes and 19 seconds.

When you buy them in bulk, the filters are cheap. So I bought the 1000 coffee filter pack, not so much to make coffee, but also to measure the progress of my life measured in coffee filters.

I made a commitment that by the time I got to the bottom of the coffee filters, all 1000 of them, that my life would be a lot different, and better, than it was when I moved back here to Detroit to open a new business.

This morning I noticed I am about half way through the coffee filters, and my life has changed dramatically from when I opened the container. Dramatically for the better.

One pot of coffee, one coffee filter at a time.

Sometimes I drink coffee when I have to stay up late to finish a project, other times I drink it when I have to get up early the next morning to continue the project, and other times I drink it when I finish a project.

They’re half gone and I’ve made a lot of progress. I wonder what I will have accomplished by the time they are all gone?

Here’s what I’ve learned from the coffee filters, and it’s a pretty simple lesson: It’s rare to make huge improvements in your life over one pot of coffee, over one day. It takes many pots of coffee, drunk on many mornings and many nights, to make the slow, grinding, progress that goes into any kind of success.

A friend of mine named Kim Ross once told me, “Successful people are usually just the ones who never gave up.”

She told me that when we were drinking a pot of coffee many pots of coffee ago.

By Tom Demerly.

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In much the same way as Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for the Social Security Act of 1935, President Barack Obama will be remembered for the Affordable Care Act.

And it may be a larger success than any of us imagine.

The Affordable Care Act could be a masterfully engineered piece of legislation that has already set in motion the only means possible to topple big medicine and make U.S. health care affordable. But not how you think.

We’ve all seen the charts and YouTubes comparing the cost of medical procedures in the U.S. to other countries. They make a case for health care being significantly more expensive in the U.S. than in other countries that already have a state subsidized or administered medical system.  It’s possible the authors of the ACA did a masterful “Potomac two-step” in selling the ACA to the powerful medical, pharmaceutical and hospital lobby. Washington sold them a Trojan horse.

ACA critics have pointed to a host of administrative problems that are likely short lived. Those problems aren’t “structural”.

A structural problem built into ACA is that the weight of medical costs in the U.S. is spread over the broader economic “ice” of the American population. That ice is still too thin to support big medicine’s current financial weight. One of two things can happen: The ice can break or some weight can be removed.

Since ACA is law, and law can presumably be enforced, the “ice” that is ACA will be held up by Washington. The weight that comes off the ACA ice will be U.S. “Big Medicine” getting whittled down to functional size. No more massive, glossy prescription drug marketing campaigns. No more mini-malls and valet parking at hospitals. No more health care providers filing endless reams of electronic files, paying staff to interpret billing and insurance logistics and creating their own internal television networks to promote themselves. Malpractice litigation will be reformed. Medicine will become more medical, less commercial and litigious.

The ACA will dry up hospital "malls" and commercial dining areas and other accessories to hospital operation.

The ACA will dry up hospital “malls” and commercial dining area and other accessories to hospital operation.

There will be blood. Hospital staff, already strained in many places, will be trimmed. Logistics will be streamlined, even doctors will earn less. Health care suppliers will suffer mightily; with many going bankrupt like auto component suppliers did in the U.S. automotive bailout. And just like the automotive bailout many of the financial negotiations that were abrasive and costly between unions and car companies will now be quickly dispensed in bankruptcy court. And for once, it will be the medical companies that will take the hit. The ACA may protect the citizen-patient.

“Health care quality will contract while health care access will expand.”

If this is the direction of ACA, intended or not, the process will be an abrasive one. We the people in the first decade of ACA will experience constant changes in health care logistics and a general decline in the quality of health care. In short, our health care infrastructure will contract to a scale similar to those of countries with functioning social medicine. In many ways that will appear as a downgrade. But in the spirit of ACA it will spread access to health care across a broader population. Instead of high-income people getting great health care and middle and lower class people getting none or reduced levels with exposure to financial ruin, everyone will get a roughly equivalent level of healthcare services and products. Health care quality will contract while health care access will expand. The optimal balance will be when the two conflicting agendas meet in the middle.

It’s possible President Obama’s ACA will be remembered as the savior of the American patient, not the American medical industry. Getting there will require a long and painful period of financial and legislative surgery that includes some painful amputations with no anaesthetic.

By Tom Demerly

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The greatest fear I had going into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was that it would be a sad eulogy to Tom Clancy’s genius. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Director Kenneth Branagh did his homework and borrowed subtle and successful elements from each of the Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible and Tom Clancy franchises to weave a surprisingly good story thread that is visually well done.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a tight and snappy spy thriller. It’s well written, tightly shown and quickly paced. Camera, sound and production techniques are tasteful and pay homage to its influences. Very little is over blown. Even the sets are well dressed and chosen.

Writers David Koepp and Adam Cozad used Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan with reverence for Clancy’s original vision of Dr. Ryan, the nerdy analyst turned reluctant but capable action hero.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan is fantastic as is Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, his CIA boss. And because no great spy film is a success without great villains, it is a pleasure to have Kenneth Branagh as the dangerous Russian, Viktor Cherevin.

The plot hits ominously close to home, literally and figuratively, with a story line that weaves into the little known world of economic warfare. Villains originate from Dearborn, Michigan in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters. The plan is to crash the stock market in a combined terror and economic attack; a scenario everyone hopes will remain fiction.

But Tom Clancy’s fiction has an ominous way of weaving its way into the headlines.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit never sags and builds well to a strong climax. There are a few corny moments but remember, this isn’t a strict Clancy plot. It weaves influences from every corner of the spy thriller genre, and does it with respect and tribute to each. While these stories do become somewhat cookie-cutter this one is flavored uniquely and with enough craft to make it a snappy 105-minutes. And yes, there is a sequel planned that hopefully continues with this fine cast in the upcoming Without Remorse.

Tom Clancy would have loved Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is tight, quick and nice looking. This is a pleasant surprise after the painful loss of a great author and storyteller who created these characters. That new writers are able to execute on Clancy’s vision confirms their talent and reverence for his mastery.

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in "Shadow Recruit".

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in “Shadow Recruit”.

By Tom Demerly.

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Early July 2005: I was in the car. CNN was on. There was a report of a “U.S. long range reconnaissance team lost in Afghanistan”. They went to a commercial.

I pictured what must have been going on. Marine recon, Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare, Air Force Special Operations. It was one or some combination of them.  They had no comms, they were cut off, they may be lost, their food was gone. They may not even be alive by the time it made the news.

In the mid to late 1980’s I was a member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team, Co. F., 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard. I was the scout/observer for our five man reconnaissance team.  We never saw combat then. But the sense of being a long way from home, cold, wet, hungry and with no communications is a very familiar one. Our radios never worked. We rarely got comms. We often walked home, even on training missions.

In 2007 when Marcus Luttrell wrote his book Lone Survivor I read it in one sitting, and didn’t sleep well for days. His account of a long range surveillance mission gone bad is harrowing and realistic.

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“Lone Survivor” author Marcus Luttrell signs his new book “Service”. Luttrell’s incredible account of Operation Red Wings deserved a better film adaptation.

This weekend Director Peter Berg’s adaptation of Lone Survivor hit theaters. Berg is the mastermind behind the impressive and haunting film The Kingdom from 2007.

Berg executes the complex story of Operation Red Wings told in Luttrell’s Lone Survivor with the level of authenticity you expect for a 121-minute Hollywood movie. There are moments when the film “works”, sort of. But for the most part it is clunky, forced and unrealistic feeling.

Berg may get a pass because faithfully depicting the horror of a small recon team retreating down a cliff side in the high Afghan mountains of Kunar Province is technically demanding. But remember Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, a scene so real it makes you recoil in terror and smell the cordite, exhaust fumes and gore. Even Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, while very “Hollywood-ized” provides a more authentic and vertiginous sense of what combat must be like. Both Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down “feel” more realistic. Lone Survivor relied too heavily on bad set dressing, rotten camera movement, poor make-up and a generally inauthentic “look” to deliver.

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The cast of “Lone Survivor” look more like an airsoft convention than a Long Range Surveillance Team.

The shape and storyline of Lone Survivor is good but the look and feel is shallow and contrite. There is so much “punch” and terror to this story it could have been done better. The digital effects, especially of aircraft and wide scenes, are embarrassingly poor by current standards. Lone Survivor simply looked “hurried” and synthetic. The make-up effects of wounds and blood looked like something you’d see in a Halloween haunted house. Even after three days of a long range reconnaissance patrol the characters didn’t look authentically dirty and grimy.

Another nick against Lone Survivor is that the “Afghanis” didn’t look like they lived in the mountains of Kunar Province. They looked like people from an L.A. cattle call for “Afghan” extras for a film shoot. For reference on how to get it right look at the realistic pirate depictions in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips . Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman were authentic and believable in their roles as Somali pirates, in no small part because they are from Somalia.

Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is not a total failure. The audience in the theater spontaneously applauded when the credits rolled, so it got their attention. But it isn’t the authentic and horrifying insight into Long Range Surveillance and Marcus Luttrell’s incredible book that I had hoped for.