Looking Ahead through the Rear Window

December 28, 2020

As I begin this post, Team LoCo has recently completed our first-ever offsite retreat - LoCo Advance we branded it, as we do not retreat!  But we did get away for a couple of half-days of facilitated strategic planning with the amazing Drew Yancey, to the foothills near Horsetooth Reservoir, for a masked and socially-distanced time together.  We were in-person though, which gave me some joy, and frankly, yours truly could have it no other way - I am zoomed out and I needed some time in the same room as my team.  

To be real, it’s been a long and not-joyful season for me, starting with the lockdown response to the pandemic threat, growing through the racial tensions of the summer and the divisive partisan discourse of the election (and post-election!) - and continuing through the loss of a beloved family member in late October.  As with many of us, this year has been tough.  Harmony and peace and love are what feed me, not this junk food we get fed in our day-to-day media absorption; and I’m made nauseous on seeing the fear and loneliness in so many eyes when I do go out.  I find my energy in being around others, and when that’s taken away - it’s hard.  When my beautiful and amazing wife can’t sleep well, and has a hard time finding moments of joy - ever - because her momma is gone - nor do I sleep well and I likewise struggle to find moments of joy.  So yeah, I still carry an easy smile for a stranger, but I am ready to call this a year and think of better times ahead.  

But I’ve got a beautiful and amazing wife still, and a great team at LoCo Think Tank that needs me to set the vision for the year ahead and beyond.  We expect to grow again next year - hopefully more than we did this past year - which was only a bit. But we did grow, which many small businesses can’t say this year, and we won’t die, as all too many have.  Clearly, there is much to be thankful for, and despite the challenges of this past year, I wouldn’t trade shoes with anyone.  In doing this look-forward together, I’ve found a peace that wasn’t with me in recent weeks.  We’ve calibrated the machine - I’m re-energized and I believe, so is my team.  

When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, there were some roads that were so narrow between deep ditches that even a 5 or 7-point turnaround wouldn’t get the job done, so sometimes one would back up their car (or usually, pickup truck) for a good distance to find a field approach to turn around in.  This might be done when checking fields for crop maturity for spraying weeds, for example.  Reverse gear can actually go pretty fast, but the tricky thing is that most of us don’t have any experience driving through mirrors, or by reaching ahead to grip the wheel with one hand while twisted around to look out the back window.  What my dad showed me as a youth, and what I’ve done myself on more than a few occasions, is that you can make the fastest progress to the destination if you just look out the front window - staring straight ahead toward where you’ve been.  So long as you’re in the middle of the road, and not at any suspicious angles, you’re making rapid progress toward where you’re going!  

Now - I’m not going to recommend you try this most places other than very rural ND because the roads have to be very empty and very straight - and do keep an eye on your mirrors lest the approach sneak past you or you come upon another car!  I’ll do it with you sometime if you want to go out to the Pawnee Grasslands - that’s a good place for something like this.  

What’s this got to do with anything, Curt?  I dunno, really, I just enjoyed telling that story, and the metaphor kinda works.  Whether we’re looking ahead, or looking back, the best way to make good progress is to have a clear view of where we’ve been.  We’ve been working on our budget for 2021, and the Quickbooks online tool basically assumes you’ll start from what happened each month in each category in 2020 - and adjust from there based on things we’ve learned or new efforts and justified assumptions.  But remember, the financials only tell the story of the efforts and activities of what happens inside the business, so it’s the planning of those efforts and activities that powers the change that makes the enterprise stronger.  

A Holiday Video & 2020 Lookback

We did a little holiday video montage for our members this month, and shared it just before Christmas.  It’s a bit of a spoof, reflecting upon the 12 months of 2020 rather than the 12 days of Christmas.  You’ll have to watch the vid to get the full effect, but I’ll set up the rest of this post by sharing my expanded thoughts on what each verse and what each month meant to me. 

I’d also like to say here that some of my musings may be found controversial by some - and are admittedly, ill-researched and subject to confirmation bias - if that’s you please know this:  Just because I say something doesn’t mean I mean it - I am sharing my thoughts freely, and looking for a perspective or nuance that you won’t get in your normal channels, and trying to ask questions that aren’t being asked - otherwise why would you read my blog?!  So, without further ado - 

12th (Team LoCo)  In the twelfth month of 2020, Team LoCO wishes thee, a New Year full of prosperity. 

  • (11) a fair and balanced election (Kregg)
  • (10) no trick-or-treats (Moses)
  • (9) a blazing Cameron Peak (Next Level Chapter)
  • (8) that I am now a teacher!? (Brandon)
  • (7) a masked but open economy (Rory)
  • (6) the challenge of racial harmony (Pat)
  • (5) tre-men-dous Zoom fatigue (Deb)
  • (4) my PPP loan proceeds (1st Bank staff!)
  • (3) a panicked stay-home order (Andrea)
  • (2) a novel chinese virus (Rob)
  • (1)  and abundant opportunities (Curt)

Abundance of Opportunity - Remember January 2020?  The small business world was rocking, with the biggest problem being not being able to find enough new employees or those with the right skills.  There was, and remains - an abundance of opportunity for many small businesses.  But they’ve got to remain nimble and keep innovating to add new value and products/services for their existing customers, and keep marketing to find more new customers.  Opportunity is funny in that if you look for it, you’ll often find it - but if you stop marketing and innovating as a means of saving money because times are hard - you may find yourself taking a wrong turn onto the road to obsolescence.  If you’re a restaurant owner or venue proprietor - I feel for you, and I don’t know how long it will be until it’s normal - and I hope this vaccine and the weather allow you to make some black ink again soon - you’ve suffered so much.  

A Novel Chinese Virus - a third-rail topic to discuss in too much depth perhaps.  From my perspective, the universe and everything in it is a created place.  For others, it big-banged it’s way into existence, and evolved from there.  Either way, we can agree that science is real, and that this virus is real and very dangerous to some (and either asymptomatic or like a tough cold to most - which is a problem making it hard to know who was/is sick), and is highly contagious in certain environments (which was the really big problem).  I’m a pretty simple guy, and I guess I see it like this:  Whether God or the Big Bang created Mother Nature, she creates all sorts of bugs, and these bugs thin out and strengthen the remaining herd.  It’s great that God made humans smart enough to come up with a vaccine in only a year, but the effort to fight this virus was extreme, and especially the shut downs that came at tremendous cost, and I wonder sometimes if all this was necessary and prudent.  This article in scientist.com suggests that most people who get sick have a durable immune response - months and (probably years?) later - is this a problem that would have taken care of itself?  Should we have just locked away the vulnerable and let this puppy run it’s course?  (No, I don’t want your mom to die, and I’m not suggesting any woulda/coulda’s, and I’m glad I’m not the decider on this stuff.  But I also have to ask - is this how we’re going to do it every time a new bug comes out?  I guess that old saying - feed a fever, starve a cold - might fit well here?)  A lot of people around the world are starving right now, there’s already 100 million more people in extreme poverty from a year ago.  We’re sacrificing young and middle-aged first-second-and third-worlder’s economic fortunes (which also means lives at various levels) to mostly protect older first-worlders lives (there aren’t as many older second/third worlders), and so long as all are ok with that - I’m good, I’m just asking the question.)  

Panicked Stay-Home Order - OK, wow - what to say here?  First, I fully embrace government’s role in containing biological threats through the power of quarantine.  My right to free movement ends if/when my free movement represents a verifiable threat to your life.  However, I dispute and always will, any Governor’s or government official’s right to compel healthy people to remain in their homes, and I especially oppose the government’s role in defining whose livelihoods are “essential” and whose are “non-essential”.  The Right to Assemble and separation of church and state speak loudly here to me also.  And, the other thing I would observe, with my incredible powers of hindsight, is that this effort perhaps made the problem worse.  Like colds and flu’s - it seems this virus is seasonal - and thus would be expected to diminish some in the warmer seasons.  

We were sold the lock-down approach as a means of “flattening the curve” so that hospitals weren’t over-run.  Well, between all the non-essential procedure cancellations, and nobody going in for illnesses unless it got really bad, because - covid, and nobody getting in traffic accidents because well - stay home - hospitals were closer to empty than full, laying off and furloughing staff, and bleeding financially.  If we’d have invested in health care worker capacity instead of trying to cram-down the transmission to something the system could handle - a whole lot more people would have gotten it and recovered by now, (yes, and died too), but also the community spread by the fall and winter would have been muted by all the already-immune - and I’m not sure fewer people wouldn’t have died by this approach - especially if we’d allowed the healthy young to work and move about, and developed plans to protect the vulnerable.  Hindsight works poorly in the middle of a crisis, and with all the variability of woulda/coulda/shoulda and all that.  

My PPP Loan Proceeds - This is an interesting one for a liberty-minded guy who also cares tremendously about small businesses and people and communities.  We got a smidge of it, enough to keep my team at their existing wages and hours despite our very real decline in membership and in revenues due to a deferral program we put in place early in the crisis.  But we didn’t get a lot, because the amount you could qualify for was based on historic salaries, and LoCo’s historic salaries were terribly little (and still are pretty small).  For well-compensated owners of essential businesses (especially those with large and/or highly compensated teams) that didn’t see economic harm befall them - this was a windfall!  I’m a big believer that if Uncle Sam has a program that you qualify for - take your share.  Still, vote against such programs generally, as there is too much role for the arbitrary decider in all of this, and this whole program was a pork-fest that political insiders and large companies with subsidiaries used with great efficiency, while small businesses choosing to bank with Wells Fargo or Chase basically found themselves ignored.  Thankfully, the business community locally helped one another find the resources they needed, at least in our circles, and in part through our weekly Virtual Business Collaboration calls.     

Tremen-dous Zoom Fatigue - Yep, Zoom fatigue is real.  But Zoom is also really handy!  This transition to digital video conferencing is perhaps the big economic change maker in the equation - work from wherever you want to live!  For my community in Northern Colorado, this is perhaps the key element that will keep us from the economic malaise that is likely to follow this season of shuttered small businesses and overspent budgets at every level of government - people want to live in Northern Colorado!  They will bring the sales proceeds from the sale of their homes in Seattle, San Francisco, New York - whatever - and they’ll buy a nice place in a master-planned community near Windsor or maybe Berthoud or Timnath.  The kids will have parks and playgrounds, the adults get beer and bikes (and maybe bands again some day?!), and they’ll zoom in for weekly team meetings and client calls and all the things.  Likely, they’ll also probably get increasingly siloed in their worldviews, disconnected from their team, and annoyed by constant interruptions from children and pets, but whatevs - Colorado!  

I’m glad I don’t own a bunch of office buildings though (well, not ones with big mortgages anyway), and I’m glad I don’t live in a place where people want to move away from - that kind of economic drain is painful.  The states of New York, Illinois, and California and others are bleeding and they’re scared - companies and individuals (and their jobs, wealth, and incomes) are leaving in astounding numbers for tax haven states like Florida, Texas, and Wyoming, and for lifestyle states like Colorado and North Carolina and Arizona - where companies know they can find under-employed smart people.  That leaves the burden of government - and public support programs - on fewer shoulders, at a time when the need is growing, and the budgets and balance sheets of these states are already a mess.  We don’t really know what happens when a state goes bankrupt or insolvent - but we may find out in the next decade or two.  

I predict, sadly, that this will be the specific challenge that pulls our union apart - these big and populous states will use their power in the federal government to cram through a bailout of some sort (for everybody’s good!), and the citizens of the rural states and regions (you know, where all the water is, and where the oil (and even wind) comes from and where nearly all the food is grown) will call bullshit, and then - well - who knows what then.  I predict the US military will be used against its own people in my lifetime, I’m just not sure whose side they’re going to be fighting on.  I’m among a growing number advocating for a looser union of diverse states, (and maybe - smaller ones?) and a federal government with smaller powers and budgets, to rebuild a durable union of free peoples and states, but it feels like pushing against a tsunami of momentum the other direction at times.    

The Challenge of Racial Harmony - Finally, an easy one!  Haha.  I caught some flack online when I spoke up against BLM, Inc., and voiced my concerns that their proposed solutions might actually make things worse, not better.  And, I maintain those concerns - but not because of what you might think.  I did get some education during this period, had some conversations of magnitude, and came to realize that racism isn’t what I thought it was.  My view had been that racism was largely something that only people from the 50’s and 60’s, some rural southerners, and obvious idiots participated in these days.  I mean, if someone is a racist, they’re obviously an idiot, but during this time I heard from black friends that their children were subject to threats or intimidation, that they themselves have heard racial slurs, or felt held back from promotion, and things like that right here in Fort Collins!  OK - wow - perspective shifted.  

But, still, I find the roots of racial strife in the imbalance of economic opportunity.  If you’re born into inner-city poverty - whether white or brown or black or purple - life is a bitch, and there’s no good schools or jobs.  And, there’s too much crime, and there are gangs for your kids to get tangled up in - so why would large companies with high-paying jobs want to move there?  That’s where I struggle with the “defund the police” element of BLM, Inc. - crime will not go down if we quit policing - people do bad things, especially desperate people with little fear of police intervention.  Also, BLM”s “Disrupt the nuclear family” part of their mission statement didn’t sit well with me - didn’t we do that already with welfare programs that paid more to single mothers than to a household with an intact marriage, and paid even more if they had extra kids?  It’s that old saying - “subsidize what you want more of”.  Maybe we could do a subsidy to companies that move to or who hire people from certain disadvantaged zip codes, or something like that?  I do agree though, that demonstrated racists should be removed from police departments and judiciaries, and that there is no place for disparate treatment in the law for people of different colors.  

But, black and brown people from all around the world pick the USA as their first choice to move to.  Often - if they immigrated legally - they are coming in through the university systems, or they are from wealthy families of means - or both.  So, they’re not protesting as much.  But to me, if we give government the power to “fix” the racial harmony issue, they will create more division and strife - because that’s what the wielding of power does.  What I propose instead is the power of peer pressure, and willingness to call it out.  If you see it - speak it - shame it - stamp it out.  Don’t work for companies owned by racists, don’t buy from stores owned by racists, etc.  But beware - there is much misinformation out there - make sure you have direct evidence that someone is a racist before you stomp on them or share it as fact.  Racism is a real thing, more common than I thought - and it’s a tricky little pickle.  But if smoking cigarettes can be made socially unacceptable in a couple of decades - certainly racism can be stamped out in a similar timeframe with concerted effort?  The challenge is I guess though, that they’re hard to spot - I know literally thousands of people now in Northern Colorado, and if I try to imagine who are the 3 or 5 or 10 most racist among them - I don’t really come up with anybody.  

A Masked but Open Economy - Ahh, the good ol’ trusty mask.  The visible evidence that the government is doing something about the covid pandemic risk.  There’s all kinds of articles you can find that support the idea that masks reduce the spread of the virus, particularly indoors, and may reduce your chance for infection by as much as 50%! (umm, ok) and also all kinds of articles you can find that say anything other than a properly-worn N95 is probably more like a placebo or a pacifier.  But, it makes a lot of people feel safer - in the workplace and now on the streets too.  I fail to see how a mask will protect you from a virus that’s swirling around and mixed into the outside air, however - maybe if someone is having a coughing fit it will keep their spittle from jumping into your nose or mouth, but I just steer way clear of anyone having a coughing fit and walk around outside without my mask.    

There’s a few big challenges I have with the mask thing, but I’ll stop at two.  First, it’s compelled behavior that eliminates my free will to take risks if I want to.  If me and three of my friends want to play poker without masks on, we’re breaking the law these days, presuming we’re from different households - and that just rubs me the wrong way - the world is full of risks, and this one seems pretty small to me and my friends.  We could be skydiving, or racing our motorcycles up Rist Canyon, I promise both are riskier.  Unless Jimmy starts into a coughing fit - and if he does - he goes home!  Two, when I look at a chart of states and their relative success in suppressing the spread of this virus - I see little difference between the places that have been all masked up and shut down the whole time (i.e. California) and places that are near fully open (i.e. Florida) and places that are full of rabid anti-maskers (i.e. South Dakota).  California is almost the worst state in the union right now, and they’ve been the most shut down and the most mask mandated - and they have amazing weather.  But even outdoor dining is closed for the restaurants now, though the movie production houses can set up a catered lunch tent for their 100+ person staffs - because you know - movies are essential businesses and restaurants are not.  

That I am now a Teacher!? - The closing of schools has been a tough one for almost every parent I know - and most of the parents I know are business owners or professionals for whom it’s an inconvenience more than a burden, some even relish the extra time with their kids.  But for working families, where both parents have to do their jobs out of the home, and for whom the school system was not just education but also free child care - this has been an immense struggle.  4 kids and 1 computer makes things difficult for everybody, and from what I hear the teachers were less than prepared for an online-only learning environment.  I’ve met a few kids on the basketball court across the way that basically quit attending school when it moved online last spring, and haven’t hardly been back.  This should set them up well for next year!  To me, I wonder why they didn’t make it a choice thing instead of a mandate one way or the other - if you, Mr. or Mrs. teacher, prefer to be in the classroom and in person, we’ll put you with the families that want to be in the classroom and in person, and you other teachers who don’t feel safe in person - we’ll have you do the online classes for the virtual families.  This will thin out the classrooms, and make sure everyone is able to learn in an environment that’s best for them.  

A Blazing Cameron Peak - Wow, that was a doozy, huh?!  We were camping up in Red Feather when it really took off, and our friend’s kiddos wanted to head back because it looked like everything south of us was burning up!  We got the deets from the locals and decided to stay, which was great because it was an ash-fest in Fort Collins and Loveland that weekend, and here and there for weeks after.  Amazing work from the firefighters to limit the structure destruction in many areas, though many areas got hit hard.  A total of 461 structures were damaged or destroyed, including 224 homes of which 42 primary residences.  We had a thousand firefighters in the region for weeks - thanks guys and gals!  I’m always amazed at the life of a traveling firefighter - they have such a great culture and bond with one another! - it’s a kinship of a level that the rest of the world could do much to emulate.    

No Trick or Treats - Ok, there was a bit of trick or treating going on - my neighbors had little goodie bags clothesline clipped to their front fence, dressed up and waved at the kids from the front porch as they went by.  No big crowded parties of 20-somethings wearing scanty outfits and getting snockered this year though, at least none that I was invited to.  There were lots of tricks and treats for small business though, tricks in being shuttered or facing restrictions below break-even revenue, or treats in a nice fat PPP check for an essential business.  Generally speaking, if you’re mostly in the people business - like so many small businesses are, you’ve been suffering a bit, and if you’re in the stuff business, you were doing ok - unless you compete with the new and growing King of the World - Amazon.  

A Fair and Balanced Election - Is it over now?  Can it be over now, please?  Congratulations to Joe Biden on getting far more votes than any Presidential candidate in history!  Trump’s whack-a-noodle effort to find evidence of voter fraud was a fair bit looney, but not a whole lot crazier than thinking Sleepy Joe was the most exciting candidate of all time!  While I don’t think there was significant fraud per se, it’s clear who was the pick of mainstream media and the social media companies, and even that influence to me is nearly sufficient to cry foul - is it ok for these giant monopolies that control most of the information and data flow in the nation pick sides in a contest like this?  And what does Joe owe them for their service?  

I think the big tipping issue was the predominance of mail-in-ballots across the country.  My mom was telling me about her cousin (in CA so it didn’t matter anyway), who’s always been a mostly-disinterested but Democratic leaning person.  She hadn’t voted in the past 30 years, because - meh, whatever - but this year she filled her ballot out to get Trump outta there, put a stamp on it, and boom.  I think it’s good to have easier participation in elections, but it will be important for us to understand how the information people use to make their decisions gets to them.  Censorship is bad, even at its’ best, in my view.  I know we’re not supposed to talk about it, but I voted for Kanye - his podcast interview with Joe Rogan just before the election sold it for me!  And, I think I’d prefer him in the role, if only for the entertainment value.  I bet any album he put out while President would crush!  One question I have that you don’t see asked much is this - how did the House of Reps and downballot Democrats get crushed in the same election where Trump suffered a huge defeat?   

A New Year full of Prosperity - So, what will the year ahead bring for the nation, for our region, and for our small business community?  As I alluded to earlier - I think here in NoCo, we’ll be pretty ok - because people can now live almost anywhere they want to and people want to live here.  The places I worry about the most are the ones already in the most trouble - the rural areas with sparse internet infrastructure, the inner cities where so many businesses boarded up during the riots and still haven’t re-opened - and may not ever, and the aforementioned states and cities with growing problems and spending obligations, and a declining wealth and population base due to outmigration - prosperity will be tough to come by in those areas.  But I guess that’s the American way as much as anything, vote with your feet.  I saw Tulsa, Oklahoma has a “bring your job to Tulsa” campaign they call Tulsa Remote - get $10,000, free desk space, and a welcoming mid-size community when you bring your work-from-anywhere job to Tulsa.  What I wonder, is how those kinds of migration are going to impact the politics of those regions - because really, it’s an urban rural divide as much as a left / right or coservative / liberal.  Will these conservative communities turn the incoming city folk red, or will the incoming city folk turn these more rural communities into blue places eventually.  Meh, who the heck knows - it’s challenging to look ahead through the rear window!  

Sincerely though, Team LoCo and I wish you only the best things in life in the year ahead, with more joy, peace, and prosperity than you found in the year we just went through.  May God bless you and keep you, and rain his blessings widely upon this great nation we call the US of A in 2021!  

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