- August 1, 2010
- Posted by: Brandon Matheson
- Category: Santa Barbara Entrepreneur
I originally wrote this in 2009 and lately I’ve been doing so much mentoring that I thought I’d re-post.
Mentorship is like injecting a shot of confidence and criticism all at once. If handled with care, it may just be the most valuable time any young person receives. Whats more, almost anyone can mentor. All that mentorship requires is experience, clean intentions, and time.
I’m mentoring entrepreneurs, young men and women, and a few colleagues. For me, it’s like taking lessons in patience – and school seems to have just begun. For a moment though, you realize through the mentoring that you are not the subject. And in that realization, you accept with gratitude that ‘however long it takes’ is how long it takes.
I used to think that mentoring, for it to really work, required both sides to get something out of it. As a close follower of Nietzsche, I assumed every act was actually selfish. That’s right, even holding the door for your fellow man… we actually do it because it ‘makes us feel good’ that they say thank you or smile. I have not concluded that Nietzche was wrong, but I think to be happy, you have to open yourself up to altruism and mentorship is a low-cost, low-calorie way to do just that.
My first mentors had to have been Nabil and Hedy Habra – my parents. I’ll exclude them from this particular narrative. I will say “thank you” though to each of them. For I learned those practical things from my Dad:
- How to drive a stick
- How the stock market works
- That race should never dictate how you see someone
- That just because you have means doesn’t mean you should display or exhaust those means
And to my lovely mom who mentored me, sometimes involuntarily, on matters of;
- living a life of truth no matter what others think
- living a life of private expression; once mastered released publicly in granular form
- recognizing beauty in a flower, poem, yoga pose, and rolling a grape leaf
- understanding that just about everything you read, hear, or see has multiple levels
I could go on, but I’ll focus in on those folks that mentored me based on different mitigating circumstances.
Mr. George Sepetys is a professional business man. I have to give George credit for the success that I have had in dealing with clients throughout my career. What is so interesting is that George’s secrets were all so very simple. As is the case in much of life, execution is the key. I met George in 1996 through some business associates we both had. George had been the creative director of a large advertising agency before venturing on his own designing brands and identities. That only represents the few years before and during my relationship with George. This gallant 70+ master of communication had many lives before meeting Jacques Habra and I had the tremendous favor of learning a few of the keys to success.
I had just launched my first real company, Web Elite, and I quickly realized that a HUGE part of successful Web development was design. I partnered with George’s agency who not only provided the highest quality design work that my firm needed but the counsel on how the customer ‘process’ works, or should work. I also learned that what you charge for your time is entirely connected to the intrinsic value you believe you will deliver. It’s not complicated at all. If you have a reputation for excellence and quality, you can charge more. So, if you want to bill more for your time, provide more excellence and quality.
I spent hundreds of hours with George from 1996 – 2000. From there, my company began to exclusively focus on internal Web applications and George regretfully began taking steps to retirement. I’m not sure he’s even really retired today. In those hours, I remember a few one-liners that I use to this day.
- “God save us from amateurs” – George was clear that delivering to the client required precision on what was to be delivered, terms, and meeting the business objectives. And, he was especially clear that as projects grow in scope, the team grows. Sometimes this means the client’s team grows, and other times, it’s the vendor teams. Whenever we came across an individual or group that wanted to cut corners, he would say to me “God save us from amateurs.” A statement of concern, yes, but also an affirmation of what we were there to do: be professionals. George’s commitment to excellence and client satisfaction left very room for gray. We either finished successfully, or remained to complete unfinished business. I think that’s what kept clients coming back to George. Even when aspects of a project were poorly defined or getting from point A to B was unknown to all, clients knew George would find a way to please them.
- On our way to meetings, “what do want to accomplish?” What a simple idea. Before you spend your own valuable time sitting down with someone, have a clear idea of what information you want exchanged, what the purpose of the meeting. Even today, some 12 years later, I am truly amazed when colleagues want to schedule meetings “to talk.” Well, you must have a lot of extra time on your hands. George was born in the 20s, that’s 1920s, when time was truly money and in many instances, time was survival. So he must have been organically bred to go into any endeavor asking “What do we want to accomplish.” I love this attitude, the notion that we are here to advance projects, one way or another.
- “I can provide you 2 of the following 3 in terms of my offering: low price, quick delivery, high quality.” If you haven’t already guessed, George was always dressed sharp and ready to engage. I can’t think of one time I saw the guy yawn. And so his presence immediately established business. The occasional client would ask for a lower price and George’s reply, “I can give it to you cheaper, but not as fast or without as much detail.” And, you can bet the client’s first elimination of the 3 items was low price. George’s method was subtle, articulate, and light and he never compromised the value of his work. I took this to heart.
There were dozens of other points of counsel and due process. Who knows I may actually be taking credit for some of Georges’ advice. Perhaps that’s the greatest acknowledgment of George’s mentorship and guidance; that I have adopted much of his style and language as my own. Thank you George.
I first knew Janet Muhleman as the cool wife of a very cool cat named Tom Hollyer. I quickly came to learn that chances are good that if you really dig someone, you’ll dig their partner. Tom was a mentor though he always made me feel equal; he had an uncanny ability to make everyone in the room feel important. I totally dug this guy because he always gave it to me straight and had this positive energy that wasn’t ‘Tony Robbins’ let’s get fired up, but instead “let’s get up because it makes sense and it feels better than being down.”
Tom had two passions as far as I know: playing the guitar and his wife, Janet.
The first thing I noticed when meeting Janet was her focus. She’s listening and processing. So, it’s not surprise that what she has to offer is typically poignant and thoughtful. Janet and I sat down one day, something like 6 months after I had sold my web development/web application firm Web Elite. I was in the midst of fulfilling my employment agreement as part of the sale. I had a lot of questions. What’s next for me? Where should I live? Should I travel? Should I stay in technology, maybe shift into just consulting. I had designs on stand-up comedy and visions of screenwriting. I even mapped out an around the world trip. Yup, I had the sponsorships lined up and had plans to ship my car here and there. I had too many options and very little direction.
I asked Janet “how do I figure out the best move?” Her reply was as simple and effective as I came to expect: “Why not do it all?”
I realized it was that simple and so I begin planting seeds in each endeavor while of course coordinating what can’t happen simultaneously. The response eased my anxiety, and gave me confidence to move forward. During those post sale months, I felt this force that made me feel as if every decision and every investment needed to be absolute. Sometimes, I still feel it – often a few months into a new relationship. I question and test and often find myself caught in that state of analysis like Dostoevsky’s underground man. The realization that life is not a series of definitive absolutes lightened my load immediately. It’s been about five years since that conversation and I’ve explored almost all of the ideas I presented to Janet that day. Thanks to Janet, I’ve operated with more freedom than definition and more openness than constraint. I trust this post will find Janet laughing with Tom enjoying a spot of guitar and whatever moment they are sharing.
Michael C. Leoni
Or Mike, or big Mike, even big fella. When I first met Mike, I didn’t think he would become one of my dearest friends. I did not expect I would turn to him for advice on women, business, family. I just thought he was a big, lovable guy who loved life. I was right, but later learned so much more. Turns out that Mike Leoni is a family man. Father to 4 beautiful kids and loving husband to a sweet Lebanese lady named Diane. That’s actually how we first connected. I was attending a technology conference in Scottsdale and the two of them were on a weekend getaway. For Mike and Diane, it was a much needed break. They had been in full parent mode for several years and recently had added twins to the equation. I’m wading in the pool, a respite from the Arizona heat. A colleague of mine walks over and we get into a spirited discussion on college football. Now, you simply cannot live in Ann Arbor and not know a little something about college football. In our debate on which team would be playing in January, I made my case for my alma mater, the University of Michigan.
I outlined important facts about the program like how Michigan has the most wins of any college football program and how Michigan has the best win percentage, and the most recognizable worldwide brand in college sports, the Michigan M. And, in the middle of all of that, I see a giant M ring in my face. That’s Mike Leoni offering his Michigan Rose Bowl championship ring to, well, the ‘discussion ring’. We immediately connected not as athletes (I never played college football though Mike did), but in our passion and love for the Michigan as a school and a state of mind. It’s infectious actually. I had the same connection with many people over the years and still find this vibe to this day. I thought, “This guy is larger than life”. Clearly a football player, an offensive lineman actually, it’s pretty tough not to notice Mike walk into a room. And he always carries an exuberance for life making his presence even that more vivid.
After exchanging some bravado on our favorite team, Mike introduced me to Diane – a sparkly gem keen on offering her perspective. Diane and I sat back and watched Mike MC the football discussion. Sharing the same culture sparked our connection, though I found Diane and I to share so much more in terms of values, gratitude for life, and willingness to try new experiences. I invited them that night for a barbeque and dancing event and we forged our friendship in the setting desert sun.
Mike’s such an interesting character. Living life presently and fully and always up for some political debate, or conversation on how to improve the community. Mike’s the first guy I ever met that prioritized community. You know when you meet someone and you like them immediately and then with each reveal of their personality and philosophy, you like them even more. Well, that’s what happened as I got closer to the Leoni’s. It’s no surprise I came to appreciate the family so much, connected with their friends, and eventually joined in the same community movements Mike helped design.
Unlike George and Janet, I had a constant and regular close friendship with Mike. The way he mentored me was by his actions and his intentions. Sure, he was a successful businessman and had done well for his family, but the way Mike lives so transparently inspires me. You always know what he’s thinking. I also noted that Mike did what he said he was going to do. A simple concept rarely maintained in today’s ‘A-D-D’ society. Mike set a standard for me when it comes to family. While his pedigree is athletics, he and Diane pushed school, church, and family, followed by sports. One of their four kids, the laughing Nike Leoni, has special needs, but you wouldn’t know this if you gauged how much time each child receives. They’re comfortable, but the kids don’t take anything for granted. A testament to good parenting. Maybe it’s fair to say that Mike knew when to get out of Diane’s way on a lot of this. However you slice it, Mike’s family is his priority. For a man who runs his own business, actively participates in the community, and has many friends vying for time, you have to respect his big picture approach to life. It makes sense coming from a big guy with a big personality.
I can’t give you a specific things Mike told me that I remember to this day, unless of course you count the signature, “I’m Mike Leoni, hailing from Ann Arbor, MI, home of Borders Books, Bob Seger, and the University of Michigan.” Though, I can recount dozens of moments feeling thankful to have his smiling face in my presence.
When I lived in Venice, CA, I spent a lot of my time with this 86 year old holocaust survivor named Dolfi Smiler. Dolfi’s energy, zest for life, and thankfulness for each and every day made my time in Venice precious. I never completely settled down in Venice. For me, there was something missing; a lack of community. A feeling that I found almost immediately when first spending time in Santa Barbara in the Fall of 2006. Soon after I moved, I saw another man of age (about 85 actually) handling the ceremonies of a new magazine launch in town aptly named “Scene and Heard.” The magazine’s still around as is the MC who is warmly known as Mr. Santa Barbara AKA Mr. Larry Crandell. Larry likes to say, “when I first met Jacques, you would have thought it was his party, his magazine” alluding to my invitation to Larry to share a beverage. What can I say, the guy impressed me. I immediately liked the guy’s energy. I didn’t see him as 85 or over the hill, far from it. If you really listen, his wit is tantamount to a healthy and eloquent 40 year old. And if you listen in layers, you quickly grasp the depth and dimension this ‘giving’ soul offers those around him.
Larry’s got more one-liners than an 80s pop song. I always enjoy listening to the story that’s attached to the one-liner. In the last two years or so, we’ve gotten together at least weekly for lunch, or a diet coke (that’s Larry’s drink) and am proud to consider him one of my best friends. The 50 years that spans our friendship induces conversations about what’s happening now, today, right there. Larry’s observations and counsel are keen, and caring. It’s true that he does talk a lot – but it’s always about others, or organizations that are doing good in the community. Just being exposed to this great man has made me a better man. It’s perspective. My problems are minimal compared to dealing with the sore feet he battles or the chronic back pain. Larry never really complains; just finds good reason for good humor even on his account. I’m thankful for his karma and I feel it whenever we hang.
I’ve had other mentors along the way and some are currently in development. I hope every year to share with whomever would like to listen just a few of these good people to which I owe a debt of gratitude.