We’re getting hitched. Again.


The project started as a ridiculous idea that wouldn’t go away. You know, ideas like “we should move to El Salvador, live in a grass hut and restore a dilapidated coffee farm into a national brand,” or “hey, if we sold the house and bought a vintage Airstream trailer, we would never have to pay a mortgage, and we could park it anywhere with a great view and awesome farm surroundings!” That second one, actually, is the idea as it appeared. It came up over tea six months ago, and yesterday we bought the vintage Airstream.

As previously confessed, we won’t defend the plan as normal or even reasonable. It’s not. But when we began to talk about it, we realized it would be fun. And it would certainly be a challenge, and an opportunity for growth. Not normal, but an adventure.

That adventure started with an extensive search of Airstream options, from the gutted 1930-somethings to the $150,000 yacht-style 2017 models. Our capacity for handiwork eliminated the first, and our bank account eliminated the latter, so we settled somewhere well below average on a 1983 Airstream Excella that reaches 31 feet from hitch to tail lights. We picked it up on the coast of Washington, and hauled it 781 miles home, where Six Sigma’s trusty Ford Diesel pulled it to the top of the gravel infested hill above our house.   There Rachel and the kids are cleaning it out as I write.

While any plan involving a 248 square foot living quarters and 3 kids is subject to alteration, here is where we’re at: Sell the house (the sign is up), fix and paint the rig, test it on a few weekend tours, and then downsize our belongs to fit in the plethora of cubbies and overhead storage compartments. After that, we plan to move in, and experience the many views of Six Sigma Ranch, along with a selection of farms across Northern California.



Required Response: Remember, we are selling to humans.



We sell meat products for Six Sigma Ranch at a local farmer’s market. In the beginning, when someone would approach our stand, I would tell about the products and mention that we have a waiting list for large lots. I would give them a flier and encourage them to sign up on our website.


Early each week, I’d go check for new sign-ups and there wouldn’t be any. It was not that the customers were not interested. They came to ask questions and genuinely wanted our products, but somewhere in the business of life they put my flyer down and forgot about it.


A better tack is a concept called “required response.”


Economist Richard Thaler in his book Nudge tells about different ways people can sign up to become an organ donor.  Here is an example from Illinois:


“Here is how it works: When you go to renew your driver’s license and update your photograph, you are required to answer this question: “Do you wish to be an organ donor?” The state now has a 60 percent donor signup rate, according to Donate Life Illinois, a coalition of agencies. That is much higher than the national rate of 38 percent reported by Donate Life America.” – Richard Thaler


Did you catch that it raised the sign-ups by 22%?


This is how I could turn my disappointing sign-up numbers into a real win. Instead of giving away the flyer, I could ask people to fill out the sign-up form right there at the table and give a reward to them for doing so, like a free tour of the property that is usually a $10 value. More sign-ups mean more tours and more fun had by all.





How to Shear 700 Sheep in 9 Hours


Shearing a sheep has a pattern that, when followed, is efficient, precise and safe for both you and the sheep. In the 1950’s Sir Godfrey Bowen developed a method for shearing that is still used today. The pattern is very specific down to the exact number of strokes each part of the sheep takes. A really good shearer can shear a sheep in less than 2 minutes using his technique. I’m not a really good shearer but it reduces my time by more than half. (Yes, I tried to shear a sheep after watching a few Youtube videos and it took 45 minutes. After a week of shearing school I was down to 20 minutes.)


There are so many things I do every day that would be faster, more accurate and easy if I found the best way. Michael Gerber in “The E Myth,” his popular book on small business, suggests finding the best way for everything, then recording it in an Operations Manual.


Here are my top 5 reasons for putting some effort into writing Operations Manuals.


  1. Your mind is free to be creative somewhere else


  1. It is easier to teach someone else how to do what you do


  1. You have a baseline for tracking effectiveness


  1. When something goes wrong you can look at your process to find out why


  1. You don’t have to waste your time problem-solving something you problem-solved in the past


What have you found to be easier after finding the best way?



Marketing, Uncategorized

Strangers, Friends, and Donald Trump



I walked into a coffee shop last week to write for this blog. A lady sat at a table next to me, and began working on her computer. After a decade in Lake County, I know a lot of faces, but this was a stranger. We typed in harmony for the duration of a cup of coffee. Then she got up for more coffee, and asked me to watch her computer and bag while she was gone. I nodded, and went back to work.

It’s interesting that I had, in less than an hour, become a trusted resource to protect her belongings. It’s not that I wouldn’t ask the same of her, but neither do I pretend that asking a stranger to watch my stuff makes any sense. In fact, if I were the sort of person who runs off with other people’s laptop-filled messenger bags, this is exactly the scenario I would seek out: Sit at a coffee shop next to someone, and wait for them to ask that I watch their stuff. Then calmly wander off with it. That would be much less suspicious than walking in off the street in search of loot, like the type of person from whom my typing companion was clearly enlisting me to save her.

And yet, somehow, the hour we spent together (in silence) had created rapport.

The idea that strangers become trusted friends based on exposure is well understood by marketers and campaign managers. Why else would a company like Coca Cola spend millions posting pictures of their logo? Why should you pitch that booth at the farmer’s market each week? And why would Hilary Clinton post signs that simply say “Vote for Hilary?” Because it works.

We get more customers by being visible. We get more votes by putting up more signs, or showing up more on the news. Donald Trump gains trust from years on reality TV, whether he makes any sense or not. And Hilary gets a boost because we’ve known her since Bill got elected in 1992. But I still wouldn’t trust her to watch my bag at a coffee shop.



The #1 Grape Grower in the World

Panorama of Burgundy vineyards . France       Andy Beckstoffer sells wine grapes at prices above $10,000 per ton, in an industry where $2,000 is more common. He grows thousands of acres, and has spent 40 years turning Beckstoffer Vineyards into a luxury brand in an industry dominated by nameless commodities.

“Uhh, how?” asked a fellow grape grower at a meeting I attended a few years ago.

The question was a good one. If the man who dominates your industry shows up at a meeting, it’s time to table the agenda and start asking him questions.

And Andy was happy to share, in his charming Virginia accent. “Well, Bill, if you grow wine grapes, you better grow the best damn wine grapes in the world. And you better put all your energy into that, and you better ask people to put your name on the bottle so people know where the grapes came from. And when your winemaker customers get a higher price for their wine because your grapes are better than everyone else’s, you better ask to get a proper share of that price.”

I knew all that from reading about Beckstoffer in history books, but it was still fun to hear it from the man himself.

And then came the nugget that I hadn’t read anywhere.

“But even if you grow the best damn grapes, you need people to notice. So if you’re a grape grower, you’re not going to be spending time with other grape growers. Grape growers don’t buy grapes. You better be spending time with winemakers. Winemakers buy grapes. And the best winemakers in America were in Napa Valley when we started, so that’s where I set up office. If you’re a grape grower, you’re selling grapes to winemakers, so you better walk where they walk, eat where they eat, and pee where they pee. And then when they come up short on a wine blend, and you’re standing right there at the urinal next to them, you bet they’re gonna ask you about the finest grapes in the world.”

They didn’t mention urinals when I took my MBA, and I’m not sure if they came up at Dartmouth in 1966 when Andy finished his. But Andy’s comments have done more for my understanding of business than most of the things that did come up in school.


ps. If Andy reads this post, I hope he will excuse my paraphrase. I couldn’t take notes fast enough to get it verbatim. I hope to have captured the essence.


It’s incredible what you can learn from an expert.



I currently feel as if I could be an expert salami maker. This is not based on experience or expertise. I’ve taken one class on the subject and read one book.


I recently went to a salumi class at the Fatted Calf in Napa. I learned to make Cacciatorini, little air-dried salami, and Guanciale, cured pork jowls. The owner of the store made me feel so confident in my charcuterie skills I had no doubt that I could do it at home. How was this possible?


The instructor had been curing meat for um-teen years and had the experience to teach me exactly what I needed to know. When he rolled up his sleeves and worked right beside me I could learn and ask questions. This is far superior to watching a YouTube video (I do admit that these videos are awfully handy if you can’t find an expert!) He imparted his skill and confidence on me for a brief moment and I feel as though I can conquer the dry-cured meat world.


If you want to start farming/sewing/wood-working, find an expert and ask to learn. Offer to volunteer. Find a part-time job. Pay for a lesson. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’s so much easier to see from up there.




“It is amazing what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman


Have you ever worked in a company where everyone was trying to get ahead? It is such discouraging place to be.

I’m tempted all the time to take credit, whether or not I deserve it. I am tempted to think no one will notice my talents if I don’t tell them.

Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

When I get hung up making sure everyone knows how cool I am, it discourages people from wanting to work with me.  But if I make sure to give credit to the people who really are talented, we might actually accomplish the goal of our group.

Who knows, maybe we could even change the world!



“Content” versus “Awesome”


How do you get on Fox News, Huffington Post, Orlando Sentinel and the United Kingdom’s Telegraph?

Simple. Just do something remarkable.

That is exactly what Mira Winery did when they released a wine aged 60 ft. under the surface of the ocean. Based on the surprising quality of wines discovered in sunken ships, Mira set out to test the power of the ocean to improve their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

A much less interesting approach to publicity was on display at a session I attended for the wine industry. Well-paid professionals shared well-meaning opinions on the impact of PR calendars, social media posting frequency, and “content creation” in general. Only one of them suggested creating REAL content, stories that matter, stuff people will share with friends because it’s just that interesting.

What might you create that people won’t be able to stop sharing?



To Wholesale or Not to Wholesale, That is the Question

wholesale-ebay copy

In Gaining Ground, the very entertaining story of saving a family farm, author Forrest Pritchard tells of a funny old lady who commands him at a farmers market to never wholesale. It’s an interesting point. In the wine industry, when you wholesale, you sell your product at a lower price to distributors, stores or restaurants. They, in turn, mark up your product so they can also make a profit. As soon as you mark down your price, you need to make your money on volume. You may have to make sacrifices to quality in order to reach efficiency and volume.

One might ask, why ever get into the wholesale business? It is the compelling idea that you can sell more products to one customer (a grocery store) and maintain that one relationship. If you are selling to individuals, you have to maintain many individual relationships to equal the quantities you are selling to the grocery store.

So, I’ll ask you. How do you feel about wholesaling? If you do sell wholesale, how does your business model look?

– Rachel


A Double-Dog-Dare: “What do you measure?”


That was the first question Dr. Eric Sims asked me when we sat down to lunch.  “What do you measure?”

Eric is a wine business consultants in the Napa Valley, and one of the finest financial minds I’ve ever met. As a professor, he taught a piece of my MBA program. I later asked him to advise on activities at Six Sigma Ranch and Winery.

“Well,” was my answer, “we measure sales. And we count the guests in the tasting room. What else is there?” The professor continued relentlessly: “And how often do you talk about those numbers with the team?”

I soon discovered where the man was going with his questioning: Whatever gets measured (and talked about,) that’s what grows.

The Tractor Supply Company, a well-known supplier of farming equipment, tracks monthly sales daily on a graph in the break room. If they hit the monthly goal, everyone gets a bonus. If they don’t, the bonus goes away. You can bet there are no unattended customers on the sales floor near the end of the month.

We now have one or two key metrics for each job at Six Sigma Ranch. We talk about sales and club memberships at our weekly meeting. We track things like “average membership duration” and “annual yield per acre.” These aren’t complicated, but they help everyone keep a clear focus.

If you aren’t yet sold on metrics, I dare you to try something: Pick a metric. Try sales, customer visits or even your own weight. Review it every morning for a month. Then tell us what happened!