This idea encourages me in two opposite ways. When I discover an area in my life that is regrettable, I know I behave completely differently and do much better. When I find myself complacently “successful”, I’m reminded that the client I’m serving this week doesn’t care about the prestigious architect I deeply impressed 10 years ago. “The Past ≠ The Future” is what I would tattoo my entire right arm with if only there were a way to not make that look cheesy. Anyone got an idea of how to say that pictorially?
Weekly musings regarding design and creating value
By Cory Hanneman
Element7concrete polishes low-end materials into high-end surfaces. To that end, we polish new hires into high-level contributors. That means my job now is building out the machine that takes the gritty yet inexperienced, and trains them to make raving fans by adding massive value.
We have some beliefs that make that possible. First we believe that effectiveness is a learned behavior. I can say that because I can remember being ineffectual myself. Since I’ve been phased out of artisan work for many years now and we are finally ready to replace me in sales, the time is right to tell my origin story as a salesman. I’ll tell my origin story as an artisan later. Here goes:
3 days after graduating high school in 1995, I packed everything I owned into a little blue Ford Escort and drove from Minnesota to Los Angeles, CA. Skateboarding was >80% of my life, and LA was the epicenter. I was told that the economy was tough there and jobs were scarce, but I just knew there was some way I could eke out a life. After 3 weeks of “No.”s from every store, restaurant, and business I could see, I started to get scared. The 3 temp. agencies I worked for were getting me about 2 days of minimum-wage work/week and I was running out of savings. For the first time in my 18 years on planet earth, I was going hungry much of the time.
My only hope for steady employment seemed to be straight-commission sales. I found an outfit that would hire almost anybody to go door-to-door and sell a card for buy-on-get-one-free deals at Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus Restaurants. The idea of doing that sickened me. I thought I was far too smart and too cool to be that guy. But I wanted to eat regularly again, and I couldn’t see any other options. So I took the gig.
Taking that job was the easy part. The hard part was getting out of my Ford Escort each time I arrived at another strip mall and walking into the countless dental offices, insurance agencies, etc. and interrupting people’s to shill f#@*ing discount cards. The other hard part was driving to another strip mall to do it again. There was no boss, no customers coming in asking for help, there was just my growling stomach. Talking to dozens of strangers every day was bad enough. Annoying the majority of those strangers was brutal for me. Then I realized every sales call was like a big skateboarding trick: I had to get my mind right first or it was hopeless. Long story short, I got good at it. I learned that everybody was unique, but everyone was the same too: we all could connect on something within seconds if the vibe was right. We all hate getting interrupted at work, but we secretly like getting interrupted at work. We all like going to lunch. We all want to feel clever by getting a deal on something. We all want to buy, and not be sold. We all want to see ourselves and those around us as OK. We all might even want the hungry kid from Minnesota to win.
After awhile, I could hit my goal of selling 7 of those cards by noon most days and spend the rest of my time skateboarding. I could be done “working” by the time my friends were up and ready to skate. What once made me vomit became a breeze. One day, I happened upon the guys I dug ditches with through the temp agency when I was out selling. I thought “This new gig of mine isn’t really work.” But it was: the restaurant I was selling for saved their business because there were now 100s of people that felt obligated to eat there dozens of times. Those people may even grow to love that place. That sales campaign may have saved a restaurant on the brink of closing. So, yeah. The world was better off - more so than with the last ditch I dug with the guys from the temp agency. And for that value-add, I made my $70 in 2-3 hours most days. Though $23-35/hour was incredible money for an 18-year old in ’95, things were about to get bad.
The friend I moved to LA with got hurt and moved back, so the parade of Midwestern skaters staying at our place to hit the spots from the videos stopped. I started to get cripplingly lonely. So lonely, I said “Yes.” to my mail lady’s advance to recruit me for Amway (the people at the meetings were super nice). One day, I was so depressed, I sort of blacked out out behind the wheel and totaled that little blue Ford Escort. I had to sell on foot for a couple of day to make enough money for a bus ticket home. 3 sketchy days on a Greyhound Bus later, I was home in Minnesota. The seeds were planted of reading, listening to great speeches on tape, and attending seminars to get better though.
Back in Minnesota, I worked a bunch of terrible jobs. The crappiness of those jobs drove me to read the books on that Amway reading list voraciously though. The thoughts of Og Mandino, Brian Tracy, Andrew Carnegie, and the like were like an hour of sunshine in a prisoner yard after time in solitary confinement. I had directly experienced massive growth (painful!), and now I was reading about a world we can create with our thoughts, planning and effort. The contrast between those ideas and the reality on the floor of a beef-jerky factory in Minnesota cannot be overstated! What I am most thankful for is not the change in my direction, but the change in my acceleration that started that year. A new path is great. A new pattern of improving one’s rate of positive change is radically better.
I’ve lead a charmed life since. But the main magic behind those charms is attitude, and my attitude was profoundly shaped by the books, audios, and functions. Truth is, I was brainwashed. Maybe we could all use some cleaning in there though.
So what? How could my story mean anything to you? The point is to take everything in your world that seems crappy, and trust that you can change your habits, and trust that a change in habits creates a change in mindset, and trust that a change in mindset can make anything happen. Maybe you can do something 10X bigger than anything I’ve done yet without joining Amway, totaling your car, or ever riding a Greyhound Bus.
You’ve read something positive today. Now, go get yourself a proper book or audiobook to start tomorrow.
Change is neither good or bad in and of itself.
It truly is the only constant, and the rate of change of our world certainly seems to have increased.
This begs us to detach and become aware of our direction.
When we wake up to our world, things that sound like common sense can come off as strange. For instance, (improved technology) X (economic stability+freedom) = vastly increased choices in purchasing. A weird offshoot of this fact though is that products that age well have become a rare niche rather than the standard.
This is because consumerism rewards planned obsolescence.
Bought for $5,000 on craigslist several years ago, this is aged to look as good in 10 more years as it does today.
These things bring me joy the same way our floors bring our clients joy. They were not fun purchases up front:
New Redwings actually hurt my feet a little for a month or so until I get them broken in. Then I can usually count on them for 2-6 years.
That Harley ran so badly when I bought it, I thought I would have to re-build the motor. Luckily it was just old gas with a lot of condensation.
It seems to be the same deal with the floors we make. Clients are conditioned to expect a lot when they purchase, and they often get what they don’t expect (this can be borderline traumatic). They nearly always grow to love the floors over time though. Having done several thousand of projects based out of a tiny town, I can tell you: our customers grow to love their floors.
We have to realize when we have been made into junkies. If we working to buy things that we know will be garbage sooner than other choices, we should stop. I know there is an endless stream of new stuff to buy though. It’s easy to be blinded by that to our meaningless earning and buying and earning and buying and filling of landfills. Only by subordinating our passing feelings to what really makes sense can we build lives that get better each year. Ironically, wise purchasing may be the best road out of consumerism.
Our company values have been clearly defined for over a decade:
Make Raving Fans
Every Tuesday, I write a one-pager for our all-hands meeting with a fresh idea to help us live those out and an re-cap of how well we did the previous week. For instance, this week we encouraged artisans to tape a little package of ear-plugs to the cord of their angle grinders, hand-held polishers, and saws so they would be reminded at the right time to protect their hearing. We celebrated at the 12 new “raving fans” we made, and we shared the 4 things we plan to do better next time. We celebrated Q1, 2019 being the best quarter we’ve had in 2 years. We talked about how the ultimate skill in business is empathy: really feeling how the other person feels about our words, actions, and the intersection of their expectations and our service.
I’ve kept these papers to ourselves and written here maybe once/1-3 months out of scarcity. That is I let myself get annoyed by the bunch of competitors I created whose brand/marketing story is “I used to work for element7concrete”. I hated the idea of them still getting value from my thoughts without the accountability of doing the work well. Humans can operate with mentalities of abundance or or scarcity, and I’m not proud to say I was in the latter when choosing to not write here.
So I repent of all that. If I have an idea that may make the world better - even if our artisans ignore it and our competitors run with it, I will share it. I will write here at least weekly, and if you really want to know the soul of our company, you can dig in and find it here. It seems likely that few people will dig this. If you are one of those few, reach out: I’d love to meet you and maybe make something with you. Thank you.
In our locker room there are (3) 3-ring binders.
Safety Data Sheets
Artisans Training Modules & SOPs
QR Codes and SOPs for Material and Tool Management
As we prepare to bring on a new Material and Tool Manager (MTM) next week, I find myself working on the tools and systems for that role with every hour possible. I thought copying and pasting the back cover of that binder might give you a better idea of what we are all about, so here goes:
Our mission: Better Homes | Better Jobs | Better World.
We image Christ’s work in us when we make these high-end surfaces out of these low-end materials.
We brighten neighborhoods by creating rich experiences of locals making great floors, countertops and furniture for their community.
Our culture of excellence, our training program, and our systems of feedback and material management create great artisan-class jobs and this helps overcome local poverty.
Those on our team are made brighter as they move from apprentices, to artisans, to masters, to leaders.
People need homes and workplaces, those spaces need floors, and there are only 2 choices:
Durable, timelessly beautiful element7concrete
Future garbage. Except hardwood, in 30 years today’s trendy floor covering will look like stuff from 1989. Water ruins wood floors, carpet, laminate, etc.
Our values and how we live them out managing material and tools:
The MTM makes sure team members have functional PPE for every project.
We grind wet even though it is much more labor intensive than grinding dry because the dust from grinding dry is unhealthful to be around.
We do not install sealers and coatings where the will need be stripped years later.
Make Raving Fans.
The MTM sets the standard for service by serving the artisans often before they even wake up for their workday. They then are inspired to serve our patrons well.
Every part of our systems is orientated towards reminding ourselves of how fun it is to light up another person with great work.
Every position, every day, the person filling it contributes more than they take out and there is a scoreboard reflecting their contribution.
We created a company worth contributing to.
Every score is affected by the spirit of the team as reflected by the members’ scorecards
We leave everything and everyone better than we found them.
We only speak when it may help somebody.
Championship athletes play best when having fun.
We have the most fun in life overall when we have been the least indulgent with ourselves.
Therefore, in going hard (rain or shine), we end up having more fun at work than anybody we know.
Thanks for reading. As always, please phone or email us if we might be able to add value to your project.
Last post, I wrote about a step back we had to make in volume to ensure quality. When pointing at anything though, there’s a danger of attracting attention to the pointer rather than what you are pointing at. Downsizing is never a sustainable strategy. Pruning is just a means of facilitating growth, and proper growth after pruning feels magnificent.
Human organizations fascinate me. I define an organization as a group of individuals arranged by lines of communication and accountability such that they create more value as a group than the sum of their individual contribution could ever reach. Any group that does not do this, is just a group: if they try to compete with proper organizations in the market, they will be buried.
One of the richest sources of insight regarding organizations and leadership is military history. War is a terrible business, and I pray for the day when the proverbial lion can lay down with the lamb. Until then though, we have wars. There will never be an arena where the ability to get a group of people to work together towards a common goal has higher stakes and therefore greater performance and insight than war. So we rejoice in the keys to light that comes from such darkness.
The best commentator on combat leadership’s application to business and life right now is Jocko Willink. His favorite book of all time is About Face . In that odyssey of American Warrior, US Army Col. David Hackworth declares “Colonel Glover S. Johns was the finest senior infantry commander I’ve ever seen, or would ever see again” Hackworth summarizes Col. Johns’s farewell address with these points:
Strive to do the small things well.
Be a doer and a self-starter - aggressiveness and initiative and two most admired qualities in a leader - but you must also put your feet up and think.
Strive for self-improvement through constant self-evaluation.
Never be satisfied. Ask of any project , “How can it be better done?”
Don’t over-inspect or over-supervise. Allow your leaders to make mistakes in training, so they can profit from errors and not make them in combat.
Keep the troops informed; telling them “what, how, and why” builds their confidence.
The harder the training, the more the troops will brag.
Enthusiasm, fairness, and moral and physical courage: 4 of the most important aspects of leadership.
Showmanship - a vital technique of leadership.
The ability to speak and write well - 2 essential tools of leadership.
There is a salient difference between profanity and obscenity: while a leader employs profanity (tempered with discretion), he never uses obscenities.
Have consideration for others.
Understand and use judgement; know when to stop fighting for something you believe is right. Discuss and argue your point of view until a decision is made, and then support the decision wholeheartedly.
Stay ahead of your boss.
As we strive to embody the highest ideals, our people are aimed at their objectives and inspired. Some people have more wattage or horsepower, or mana, or whatever you want to call it, but the real power comes from focus. The beauty of our organization is the players coming to work here are focused on objectives that line up with their strengths and interests. Chanel may not have the desire or ability to grind concrete that Ruben does. Ruben certainly does not have the desire or ability to estimate, bid, and answer customer questions that Chanel does. And so on across the 20 or so people that work here.
As we reflect on 2018 and plan for 2019, we could not be more excited. The truths we have arrived at have been hard won. We are not wearied by that work. We are stronger than ever. Pruned of the low-wattage types, we are left with well-aimed winners. On top of that, we are overwhelmed with thankfulness to serve you. Thank you for your interest, appreciation, and patronage. You are our people.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” - Jesus Christ.
People requesting information and service is at an all-time high, but people able to perform good service is at an all-time low. So, I think it is time for element7concrete to shrink a little. I really don’t care about quantity of anything 1/10th as much as I care about quality.
If you are reading this, I bet you get it too. You don’t care about our gross-revenue this year either. You are relieved to hear that we are eschewing pride and ego for appreciation and development of the team we have and the architects and builders we already have relationships with. I hope we are a breath of fresh air in a crowded marketplace of what looks to me like garbage.
We may settle for a smaller market share, but we will never settle for less than 1st-class work. That’s because care more about you than we do about us. We love that you get that.
Than I suppose a virtual tour is worth a few million. Here’s a way to experience how clean these floors are without leaving your chair.
Click here to be transported to 113 James Circle in Horseshoe Bay, TX
The inspiration for the color was “wet sand”. The builder/owner/seller of this home had seen our work throughout Austin and knew that no other team could hit such a subtle, nuanced target as this. With our special 2-step staining process and our 5-step polishing process, we made a floor that is warm in color, cool in style, and the most neutral backdrop imaginable to furniture and art.
We are all so thankful here to make a living making mesmerizing surfaces for (and with) people we come to love.
“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” - Dale Carnegie
I sometimes forget Carnegie’s quote above. Though we’ve built an organization that exploits zero people, I forget that men are motivated by pride and vanity. Though we are painfully generous with our people, they sometimes refuse to do the math with me and leave.
So yet again, I find myself with a new local competitor selling himself as “so-and-so from element7concrete”. Except they are no longer from element7concrete. The secret sauce that makes our builders so fiercely loyal is the consistency, quality, added value of good design ideas, and quality that only comes with a great team.
“Synergy” became a corny word in the late 80s and 90s, but that idea is real. Well structured teams like ours create more value in the world than the sum of the individual contributors because we are arranged in a way that capitalizes on strengths and makes personal weaknesses irrelevant. 1+1+1+1 = 7 here.
If I’m perfectly frank, the rejection of former employees hurts a little. They don’t believe me when I tell them how much you actually net as an owner - even with no “overhead” (no such thing: for instance if you don’t have a Material and Tool manager purchasing and repairing stuff for 6 teams you are doing it yourself, and spending more time than you expect) you don’t get to keep anywhere near most of the money that comes in. Like most construction service businesses, we eek out a 1-10% profit, depending on the month or year. They will learn the hard way, but that doesn’t always mend the relationship. Feelings are often illogical.
So what? The point of my sharing this is to share what really drives me in hopes that you get stoked to make something great, too. The most creative work I can think to do is to make unlikely futures for people who care to make beautiful things. A big “thank you” to the 100+ builders and architects who choose us every time for good reason. They know we are small enough to care deeply about their job and too big to get moody. We have clear values, a clear mission, and we just deliver. No matter what. Thank you for reading. I love you.
We have been putting many great tricks for installing polished concrete and industrial coatings on YouTube so that all our team leaders could educate themselves on the way to projects. I stumbled across this interview and thought if you are here, maybe you'd like to know more about me and this team. - Cory Hanneman Link here or copy to your browser - https://youtu.be/Ddr9oc44mnE
This is a revolutionary offering. Millions of pavers get thrown away every year. We make them better than when they were when originally installed. Replacing concrete pavers takes weeks, costs thousands, and is wasteful. They are seldom recycled or re-used. We can refinish them giving them new life and creating less waste.
Because pavers catch stains over time, and because they are so porous, some of those stains will never come out.
Over time they take on a patina, so though theoretically they could be exchanged for new ones, that's not how it normally works. New pavers are almost always less than a perfect match with old pavers.
There are acres and acres of pink-ish red pavers out there that no longer match the updated decor of the home they lead up to. They can be found on high-end driveways and while Tuscan-style homes were all the rage 10-20 years ago, modern greys and muted browns are the preferred style today.
3066 on pavers with 8oz Charcoal
In 2015, we cast this table for PWI Construction in Dripping Springs.
PWI is a nationwide builder of high-end hotels, restaurants, and retail stores - they know what they are doing when they specify something. We have installed 1000's of high-end decorative concrete projects, so us making a table for them seemed like a piece of cake in every way (metaphorically easy & delightful). Neither the builder nor us anticipated how much havoc the steel substrate would wreak on the casting in a controlled space.
Within 8 months there were massive cracks in the table.
Cracks in concrete flooring are inherent. Cracks in a conference table like this were unacceptable to us (they were actually pretty cool about it). Re-casting was not an option (it is a mess!). So, we cast a GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) cap at our shop to just go over it. It was our first casting using a mix that allowed us to go so thin/light (0.7” = 7.7lbs./sf), and my friend Troy Lemon from Cornerstone Decorative concrete in Michigan came down to help. It turned out great, and I was frankly surprised it did not break in the 50 mile drive from our shop to their office as the piece was only 4 days old. Just as we were walking through the door, though it broke apart in our hands.
We tested the fit of the broken piece and found we needed another 1/2” in the part of the edge covering the existing top. So, we took the hit, went back to the shop, and made another - this time without Troy’s help but with better dimensions. We also had less confidence in 4-day old concrete and more patience.
The new piece turned out awesome, and years later, it still gets compliments every week for PWI. It embodies their ethos of getting hard things done through skilled partners that never just walk away. They are successful because they choose element7concrete, the team most known for finishing well.
This is ironic: a blog post about not creating online content. Element7concrete.com was crashed weeks ago, and while we have some stuff up and are excited to radically re-build, it is actually low on our list.
That's because we are more about the work than talking about the work.
Our main thing is to make the best concrete floors possible. There are not really best practices we can automatically adopt, so we have a culture of aggressive testing and experimentation. The good news is I am built for this. I may be the president of a multi-million-dollar corporation, but I still come home most days with at least my legs covered in slurry.
In addition, we are translating our standard operating procedures into content that teaches artisans strikingly faster and deeper than the standard on-the-job-training. Even now, the artisans that come to your job site in an element7concrete truck may have better honed skills than I did in my prime. How is that possible? Don't most craft companies that grow just make weak copies of the original?
Not in our case.
We are deconstructing our processes and even craftsmanship itself, and arranging the skills in a progression that resonates all the way to their subconscious. We disabuse artisans of limiting beliefs, bad habits, and give them knowledge, tools, strategies and tactics to create value in a brilliant way using low-end materials to make high-end finishes. Since we all brush our teeth, wash our bodies, clean our clothes and homes, why wouldn't we want to organize and/or replace the clutter of our own minds?
All this to say, when you see element7concrete.com as polished as one of our floors, know that we have the goods to deliver on the hype. Stay grinding, my friends.
When I go to the World of Concrete in Las Vegas, I nerd as hard as I can. (I may have coined a new verb there).
That is, I will set goals like
- Find the head chemist of 3 companies today and learn something new from each of them.
- Find 3 people in your niche doing at least $10M and learn something new from each of them.
- Take 5 pages of raw notes and re-package them into something you could teach your team at home.
and so on...
Anyone who sets goals knows there is a time in the middle when you wish you wouldn't have set them. At WOC, it plays out at about 4PM when you are exhausted and you still have 2 interesting people to ferret out and learn from. In 2008, I stumbled upon Xypex that way. Xypex can be added to concrete to make it self-healing by growing crystals in the micro-cracks when exposed to water. This is a fascinating technology, and has served us well in niche projects for Risher Martin Fine Homes, Delz Custom Homes, and a handful of direct-to-user projects where nothing else would have worked.
Now, that may someday be supplanted by fungus! Researchers at Binghamton University have found a fungus spore that can be mixed into concrete to lay dormant until the concrete micro-cracks enough to allow water and air in. The fungi then spring into action healing the concrete. (Their article here.)
What's brilliant is that the fungus kicks-in when the concrete taps-out. Conventional, untreated concrete seems to disintegrate a bit over time. By adding this fungus spore, that is countered as needed.
That got me to thinking about cement in general. 5 years ago, we did our first urethane mortar job: that's a mixture of cement, sand, and urethane that has some amazing performance characteristics. 3 years ago, we started installing overlays made with a viscous epoxy binding decorative aggregates together. (Link to that work here.) We confidently install these over lots of substrates we would not be confident putting cement-based materials over. So, how cool would it be if there were bio-based binders that were resilient and altogether superior to cement?
Concrete engineers seem to focus on cement-like materials. However, there may be binders that have non of the problems of cement (cracking for instance) that are way "out of left field".
We will keep soberly looking, thinking orthogonally and testing stuff.
Maybe someday we will find a revolutionary new way to make stuff.
Every week, my passion for polished concrete flooring is tested. That is because this is a terrible business on paper:
• Construction service businesses require lots of skilled people.
• Service businesses are tricky to scale - if we suddenly increase sales 10X we have lots of new problems to solve.
• We provide customers with an inherently imperfect and unpredictable product.
• Almost no "barriers to entry": guys working out of their trucks with no idea what their real costs are compete with us on their way out of business.
I can't see myself passionate about much else right now though. Why? Well again, people build homes and buildings, and the only 2 choices for flooring are element7concrete and future-garbage:
• The coolest tile in the world, in 30 years looks like 1988 does now.
• Wood is great if it never gets wet...sooner or later that will happen though.
• Carpet just gets gross. Every year, billions pounds of carpet gets put in US landfills alone.
On top of that, I love our "backwards" customer experience. Most things I buy are exciting at first, and then disappoint over time (for instance, my Apple Watch is totally dead as I write this). Instead, the imperfection and unpredictability sometimes makes for a rocky road at first, but the real goodness of the work shines over time. That's how we created our own niche and built a multi-million-dollar enterprise in a tiny town.
The epitome of this may be emails like this one from earlier today:
You refinished our concrete floors about two years ago. I know we were pretty difficult clients (perfectionists!), but I have to admit we’ve been incredibly happy with our floors. We are new to home ownership and everything that comes along with it, so we’re learning as we go… To be honest, when we first bought our home - it was all very overwhelming and just a stressful time, so I would like to think we have mellowed out quite a bit since then :)
We aren’t in need of concrete work currently, but I was wondering if you might know any custom marble or wood vendors in the Austin area. Your approach to your work and dedication to your craft is quite incredible and completely set you apart from any other concrete vendors we spoke with at the time. I am hopeful there are other passionate craftsman in Austin - we’d like to make some custom furniture now, and will probably have other projects in the future as we continue to make changes around the home. Please let me know if you have any recommendations on any fronts!!
Thanks, and hope you’re having a good start to 2018!"
I want to point them in a great direction. I'm sure there are some strikingly good makers in ATX, but frankly I don't know a lot of guys outside of the hill country. If you know somebody remarkable, please comment below, or find us here on Facebook or @element_7 on Twitter.
We purposefully built our facility in Granite Shoals to embody our values (high-end construction/low-end materials). Every inch of this place is made to either create great experiences for clients of the architects+builders we work with (gallery pod), line out artisans for great days in the field (service pods), or to do the thinking work that leads to greater value creation (office pod). Our values (Safety, Raving Fans, Create Value, Uplift) were everywhere, so when I wanted something positive on the service pods, that old BDP song that I tattooed on my brain as a 8th-grade skateboarder came to mind (video linked here).
There is a line in there that goes “There’s no defense agains common sense, competence, intelligence or excellence. / Intense. / But here’s the difference: KRS-ONE does not mean ignorance. / Try obedience / Magnificence…” When we put text over the service pods, we added "Represent" and eliminated "intelligence" since that can be a source of insecurity.
The salient theme of my life is increasing human capital. I want to make the people around me better so badly its confounding at times. The cool part though is how I have been so fortunately placed at the intersection of ideas and physical work. All breakthroughs in thinking seem obvious when uncovered and add to "common sense".
I love architects / ideas - actual AIA members and those that "get meta" and create systems in any arena (business - military - government - education - ministry - service -NGO - etc.). I also love physical work / artisans. To work between them is an honor and a supremely exciting role for me. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice - in practice there is. Improving best-practices with a uniquely complete combination of feedback from the field and understanding of the science behind the materials and processes is super-duper fun.
As Dan Walters says “So, what?”. So…thank you. Thank you for choosing a hand-made floor that may never wear out or go out of style. Thank you for transcending how society has conditioned you to be a consumer and despite imperfection and uncertainty and choosing element7concrete over future-garbage. Thank you for “getting it”. And right now, I thank you for reading the expanded explanation of why we are so stoked to stain and polish another foundation slab into an amazing floor. We all love you.
I am insecure, so I spend $10,000s/year on professional development. I wake up at 4AM, work out, read, meditate, all that stuff - probably because I know I am a college dropout. If I played team sports growing up, I now would feel lucky to not be “riding the bench”, and the nagging feeling that my team is behind would probably be more acute. Instead, I was a mediocre skateboarder in a time when it was not cool… at all.
So at these high-dollar business-training conventions, marketing mavens encourage cross selling: pimp out your relationships - sell everything you can, right?
(Buy KISS merch. here, sucker.)
That was never my heart but the logic makes sense: my passion led me to mastery (A man has to work to feed his family, and everything other than grinding, staining, scoring, and polishing concrete just felt like peddling garbage), and part of being an expert on residential polished concrete includes being able to answer “How should be clean these floors?”
So, we asked the masses. In 2014 we asked 100s of our clients about their best-practices for cleaning. Meanwhile, I bought all the fancy cleaners I could find on amazon.com (I have polished concrete in my home, of course). However, the cleaners I bought sucked, and the hands-down winners of our customer survey were “Fabuloso” and “Simple Green”. Both widely available at discount retailers. So we bowed out…for 3 years
We continued to grow modestly at 15%/year, and we now serve nearly 1000 customers each year. The "What should I clean with?" question pops up all the time, and frankly I think those asking are a little disappointed when I point them to Dollar General, Wal-Mart or whatever. Until a month ago.
I don’t know who I love more: the end-users of our floors or the builders of their homes. I am an early-adopter, and part of the fun of finding new/better things is finding others that also "get it”. So, I truly love our customers. I’m also a do-er, though. Few people are known for GSD (getting stuff done) like builders.
Maybe the best thing about builders is how void of BS our conversations tend to be. The beauty of construction is that it is (ideally) not at all political. The cleanest work at the best price wins - regardless of the weirdness of my hobbies or my inability to talk about football. So, when Graham Fuchs atSierra Homes in Fredericksburg told me he had a killer mop for concrete floors I was very interested.
So he came to my office with his wife Heidi to demo the mop, and it was the goods. Not only did it make my office floor cleaner and shinier than anything I could muster, it was guaranteed to disinfect without chemicals for years! It was truly a better mousetrap.
Sorry it took me a month and a half to share about it here. Try it out. If you don’t think it is amazing, I will buy it back from you and do something surprisingly nice to make up for wasting your time. Here is a link: awesome mop system.
To be humble is not to think less of yourself. It is to think of yourself less. The default mindset for most of us seems to be ourselves as the center of the universe. It takes some life to knock that loose and to realize how big the world is compared to you.
Humility is almost universally venerated. The greatest people you have met had a combination of excellence and humility. I am arguing here that excellence demands humility (though many lose their humility upon achieving excellence).
Proof by contrapositive: Spose’s 2010 video for “I’m Awesome” linked here.
What’s all that got to do with craftwork and polishing concrete?
Well, let’s start with saying “I was wrong.” about cap-polishing. Cap-polishing is where you polish concrete without grinding the creamy part on top off. I used to argue that it was the way-to-go because the “cap” was the prettiest, hardest part of well-finished concrete. So, expending the effort and tooling to grind it off only made sense if you were working for a nationwide account where they needed all the floors to look the same despite various qualities of concrete placement. I used to argue that high-end residential had better slabs to start with, so therefore we didn’t need to trouble ourselves with processing concrete with coarse abrasives as a first step. I was wrong.
I have come to find out slabs suitable for polishing without grinding only happen about 40% of the time for us anymore - and we frankly dominate the high-end residential market around us. That means that 3 times out of 5, following our default process would lead to a concrete floor that was not as good as it could be. For other polishing companies, I imagine that 40% is even lower (I clearly lack humility, too).
Luckily, our business model is one of decentralized decision making. We write detailed game-plans for our artisans to add to. We empower them to make it something they are proud of. And come to find out, more often than not, they are starting the process with tooling coarse enough to expose the fine aggregate of the concrete.
Upon being confronted by my misconception, I aggressively sought knowledge about the craft of polishing concrete…again. This is what got us to 15X what we were 11 years ago, but frankly I had gotten complacent. So I got back to 4-hour blocks of heavy reading and I discovered that some people had made a better mousetrap when I wasn’t looking. Better liquid compounds had been devised for wet polishing, and most importantly methodologies around profilometers had been devised. That is, people had figured out how to use meters that test scratch pattern to eliminate guess-work in concrete polishing.
I remember in 2011 or so Jim McArdle (formerly of 3M) hipped me to the idea of RA and RRMS, (mathematical descriptions of scratch patterns as roughness average and roughness- root mean square). This made a ton of sense to me then, and I naively asked how hard it would be to make a meter to figure RA and RRMS. T-meters (the devices that measure scratch patterns) have actually been around for decades in manufacturing - the implementation in polished concrete just took some time.
American Poet Russ Rankin (lead singer of Good Riddance) once poignantly wrote “Beware the opulence inherent in confusion.” Indeed. When standards are unclear, our egos and pride are free to grow unfettered. Herein lies the challenge of change. Of the 20 or so artisans that claim element7concrete their team, the best may not quickly abandon their little tricks in favor a scientific approach to this craft. Everyone needs to feel significant, and deconstructing one’s “genius” may leave that need exposed in a good craftsman.
I’ve seen this impulse to convolute from “Industry experts” (people that know enough about decorative concrete to write but lack the heart to drive actual projects). If they can’t easily detach from their identity as a concrete guru, certainly the guys on my team that do nothing other than polish concrete are going to push back on a systematic approach - however better it may be.
So once again, my job is psychological: getting proud workmen to abandon their bag of mysterious tricks for a proper decision tree. Thank God I am a masochist who thrives on such tasks.
What magic do you do that you are afraid to deconstruct? Can you imagine looking at yourself nakedly after stripping away the mystery of your own genius? You know you are more than what you do, right?
I've read 100s of books on business, and Michael Gerber's 1986 classic "The E-Myth" has been on my "Top 5" since I discovered it 9 years ago. Today I am painfully living it.
The title of that book comes from this idea: "Most businesses are started by entrepreneurs." is a myth. Most businesses are actually started by "technicians having an entrepreneurial seizure". Then they generally grow in nightmares for the technician. Why? Because business is much more than the work to provide the service.
Since I digested the book, my work-life's ambition became to create systems to deliver world-class service and to create the ultimate career path for my teammates. I feel like I have failed miserably there.
We have put out world-class work. But I can't say that's because of the systems I made. I frankly feel like a terrible failure when I look at how incomplete our systems are. By the Grace of God, we have attracted great people that can deliver good service despite our lack of orchestrated best practices, automated verification and feedback, etc. I have let them be "Easy Buttons" and have not stayed grinding like I should have though.
What may be worse, is though I intended to put 100 people into business as franchisees, I have spawned 4 or so lousy little companies. That is, 5 guys responded to being fired by doing "side work" full time. This week 2 more will leave to "go do it on our own". The problem is, the only way one takes home more money without creating more value is to just not step up and do the right thing when things go wrong. Otherwise, I am pretty sure my top artisans actually take home more $/hr. than most owner-operators do. The 2 guys leaving this week made over $110,000 combined this year with 2-3 weeks paid time off, paid holidays, free uniforms, and gobs of other perks. I've gone into business out of my garage, and I can tell you it is not as good of a deal.
Sadly, this behavior pervades the decorative concrete industry. The vast majority of installers are guys working out of their garages and trucks that simple quit answering the phone when a customer is upset. Very few companies truly try to build a brand and put themselves in a position to never hide.
Element7concrete is clearly the opposite. We supplanted the ugliest building with the best building on the busiest highway in our town. We built a multi-million dollar enterprise in a town of 5000 (>60% of which live below the poverty line) without an advertising budget. We simply worked very hard to make raving fans of everyone we had a chance to serve.
Now though, I find myself writing with a heavy heart because yet another fool is going to try to leverage our brand for his personal gain. He will doubtlessly try to steal the builders we have put him in front of. He will likely not carry insurance, not pay taxes properly, and not do anything to help set up owners of the floors he installs for sustained service.
Worst of all, it is totally my fault. I have been theoretically working on the back-end systems of scalability for years now, but we are still missing key components. I have assembled a great "support team", but I have not held them accountable to their deliverables. I have not even delivered all of mine on time. Too many days I have let myself off the hook. I have been disciplined and excellent in many areas, but I have not pushed in key areas to drive this to victory. I have failed my team.
The good news? I get another chance on Monday morning. I have the ability and the will to fix all of this. I will not let my team lose. I am way to grateful for everyone who has believed in this to back off at all. It is pure love that powers me through and I almost can't wait to get up and get after it. Thank you for reading.
2 metaphors leading to 1 point - Here is the first metaphor:
There are generally 2 very different kinds of carpenters in the world: framers and finish carpenters. One is not better than the other, but they are very different. Framers provide the skeleton for the house - so they feel their work is very important. Trim carpenters know that the quality of their work will register as the quality of the building - so they feel their work is very important. It is extremely rare to find a single person (let alone an whole company) that enjoys both and does both well. (Bob Berg is the only outlier I can think of right now.)
Concrete is similar: there are people that place concrete (commercial constructors call this "div.3") and they are important. There are people that overlay, stain, polish and coat concrete (commercial constructors call this "div.9") and they are important. Very rare is the person that enjoys and does both well. (Troy Lemon is the only outlier I can think of right now.)
The other metaphor:
Professional football started in 1890s in the US. It took 50 or 60 years before the players were anything other than completely interchangeable. That is, up until the 1940s or 1950s they were all pretty well-rounded athletes that played just about any position as well as the other. 60-70 years later, there are very clear physical characteristics of each position.There are 22 men on the field for any given play now, and it seems unlike that an "All-Pro" player of any one position could start in even 4 of the other positions. Most could not start in more than 1 other position.
To build a house, you need many different types of craftsmen. To win a football game, you need a myriad of different types of athletes. To install outstanding architectural concrete, you need 2 separate teams. What makes us great at creating detailed patterns makes us bad at getting the concrete truck poured out quickly enough. What makes a person great at placing very flat concrete floors will make them bad at staining concrete. Sure, good craftsmen can learn anything. Someone really playing to their strengths can't be beat though.
I can say all this humbly having started a "placement division" only to shut it down 18 months later. From our countertop work, we knew more about mix design, reinforcement, consolidation, and curing than any 3 placement contractors in our market put together. We were terrible at it though. We were just not playing to our strengths. Cabinet makers may know more about wood than framers, but that doesn't mean they should start framing.
We have seen dozens (maybe hundreds by now) of floors butchered by "the concrete guy". We can always fix it. Sometimes it is so much more work to grind off what they did and start over it doesn't make sense to do it. Given our passion, it actually hurts our hearts to see great clients back away from concrete flooring because of the wrong team starting it.