About Us, Personal Growth

Couch Time


(Fair Warning: This post has more transparent and personal insight on life and marriage than most. If that’s not your thing, scroll along. If it is, enter your email on the website for a free subscription. There may be more transparency coming ; )

Now for the actual text:

There is not, for all practical purposes, a couch in the Ahlmann Family Airstream. By that I don’t mean there isn’t one, for there are in fact two. (Separated by a table at the front end, they frame the dining room, living room and bedroom, as the table sinks to form our bed.) But for practical purposes, or rather one specific purpose, a couch doesn’t exist.

I can see I will have to explain.

The purpose to which I refer is the occasional evening when a casual conversation becomes a constructive discussion. Or worse, an unconstructive one. You know, the kind of marital debate that requires private time of reflection because further exchange is going nowhere, and the passing thought appears that spending an evening on the couch, with a little distance, might be a viable and even beneficial option.

But for that specific purpose, a couch doesn’t exist. Because the couches that do exist convert to become the master bedroom, i.e. the one and only cushioned surface available for sleeping, with little opportunity for “distance.”

The décor of our Airstream thus encourages what any good marriage counselor recommends: Solve your issues before you go to bed (however long that takes.) And that length of time, interestingly, seems to be unchanged since we first got married 12 years ago. The topics of constructive discussion have evolved (we spend little time now arguing money or sex, the statistical #1 and #2 sources of marital strife), but we do occasionally spar on topics of life plans, raising children (and related coordination), and a recent category that I will call “great ideas that Christian can sell everybody in the world on, except Rachel (because she has already seen through them).”

For those evenings, when opposing views require focused verbal exchange, we are stuck to sort it out. Stuck to agree, at least, on where to cordially park the topic to be solved another day.



For the Love of Business

silver-birch-bark_mediumI was nine years old in the fall of 1992. It was a cool afternoon in northern Denmark, as the sun began to set behind the trees. I was working with my father in the front yard, cutting and splitting firewood for the winter.

At the end of the day, we had a substantial birch log left on the lawn.   At three feet long, it was too large to split. So my father issued a challenge; if I could saw the log in half by the following weekend, he would issue a crisp 100-kroner bill, equal to about $15.

I was on the job immediately after school on Monday. With that much money on the line (my allowance at the time was a weekly $3), the work simply had to be accomplished. But I was the smallest kid in my 4th-grade class, and it became obvious that the log would be a challenge.

My father heard my daily reports, my sinking into despair, as the weekend closed in and the log appeared triumphant. “If only I could have a bigger kid help at the other end of the bow saw,” I said one evening. My father smiled. “I told you I would pay 100 kroner when the log was cut. I didn’t make any rules about how you go about it.”

That day I learned the difference between schoolwork and the real world, a difference that cannot be overstated. In school, you have to do your own work to get the points. You have to follow the rules to complete the assignment. But the world is different. The world cares about results, not about made-up rules. The world lets you find your own assignments, as many as you want, and write your own rules. The world has customers instead of teachers, and happy customers don’t care how you got it done.

With that in mind (a lesson that I’m sure my father was pleased to stage) I hired a friend.   I paid him $3 for his efforts, and made full disclosure that I would myself pocket 4 times that amount. That fact didn’t bother him at all; he would make a week’s worth of allowance in an hour’s work (he was much larger and more effective at sawing than me), and he was quick to accept the invitation before I offered it to someone else. An entrepreneurial seed was born.


Economic Development

The Fight Against Poverty (and Hippos.)

hippo-yawningThere’s a tragic and amusing story behind the title of Ernesto Sirolli’s book, Ripples from the Zambezi.

As a young man, Sirolli worked with groups sent from Italy to Africa for “economic development.” As was the tradition (and unfortunately still is), one group went in search of problems to fix, in this case along the Zambezi River. They found that the locals had no agriculture, despite fertile soils, and determined to bless them by introducing Italian farming.

A few days before harvest time, the Italians were quite proud of themselves. They had taught (or at least demonstrated) agriculture along the river, and saw an abundant crop in their future. Unfortunately the local hippopotamus population saw the same thing. They came out of the river and ate the crop.

“Why didn’t you tell us about the hippos?” asked the Italians? The answer came calmly: “ You never asked.”

And therein lies the problem with billions of dollars of “economic development” funding supplied by wealthy countries around the world. “They never asked.”

Michael Matheson Miller covers the same topic from a different angle in the Poverty Cure series, where several businesses in struggling countries face competitive pressure from the “relief efforts” that flood their market with free goods.

So, what is the solution? According to Sirolli, it is called “facilitation.” Instead of marching into a deprived area on a mission, his team now hangs out at the local coffee shop. There they learn what entrepreneurial initiatives already exist, and offer to support them. The locals, who are more clever than we give them credit for, then do the work with a little support, wisdom and encouragement.


PS.  For more from Ernesto Sirolli, consider spending 17 minutes on his remarkably amusing Ted Talk:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chXsLtHqfdM


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!



Death of an Advertiser?

photo 3

This year, Rachel and I took the kids to a Christmas tree farm. I wasn’t familiar with the local options, so I turned to Facebook for recommendations. After a half dozen responses, several friends pointed to the same establishment, and we went on our way to cut a tree.

From the viewpoint of a small business owner, that’s a significant story. Why did we choose that specific Christmas tree farm? It was purely based on recommendations from friends. I had never heard of the place, or seen any advertisements for it. But I trusted that it was a good choice, and wasn’t disappointed.

Now, why did several people recommend the same place? It seems simplistic to say it, but it must be because they themselves were happy with the experience. And they were confident enough in the establishment to recommend it.

With that in mind, where would a small business in agriculture best put its customer-acquisition efforts? I don’t think the answer is yellow pages or advertising anymore. I would venture to say that the product (whether its bacon, apples or a tree-felling experience) is the key, now more than ever. I would suggest sampling ones own products (and the competition’s products), and surveying all the guests who do the same thing. (Most important survey question: Would you recommend us to a friend?)

Figure out how your products (experience) impact your customers (the good and the bad), and make them better. Once your brand clicks with your guests, it will spread like wildfire.



Outsourcing Responsibility

We got a call on Monday evening that changed our schedule. The event manager for one of Six Sigma Ranch’s best customers announced that the wine for an event hadn’t arrived as promised. The event was to begin in Las Vegas at 8:30am the next morning, and our customer meant to use the wine as welcome gifts for his own top customers. He was, justifiably, disappointed.

The glitch was caused by another company, one that Six Sigma Ranch relies on for part of the shipping process. Our own team had executed perfectly, and so it wasn’t our fault.


That’s the trouble with outsourcing. We can’t tell our customer “so sorry, someone else messed it up.” Why? Because OUR customer trusted US to get him the wine. And so WE are responsible when it doesn’t arrive.

In fact, the title of this blog post is an oxymoron:

You can’t outsource responsibility!

Thus, our only options on Monday evening were to apologize and take responsibility for the error, or fix it. Fortunately Rachel has a real sense of adventure, so we put the sleeping kids in the car along with the wine, and drove all night to Las Vegas. We got there at 8:15am, 15 minutes before the beginning of the event.

As an unexpected bonus, the event organizer mentioned this gesture to our customer, who mentioned it to everyone else. Conveniently for us, we got to turn a bad deal into a real crowd pleaser.

But, the trip delayed our weekly blog post, a situation for which I apologize and take full responsibility =)



Survey Says…


I’m not sure which made me the most anxious, the 500 spectators, or the morning’s flawless presentation by keynote speaker and U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tony Kern on the elimination of human error in the workplace. (Tony published his first book while I was a freshman in high school.)

Either way, it was with a healthy dose of focus and humility that I took the stage at the American Society for Quality (ASQ) conference in Phoenix last February.

The invitation to speak at the conference came with a request that I share about Six Sigma principles in an “unusual environment.” Six Sigma principles, of course, are the business -improvement practices made famous by giants like Motorola and General Electric.

Thus my home base at Six Sigma Ranch and Winery made me well qualified for the topic, and even more qualified as an “unusual environment.” (According to the organizer, there would be no guests from the business of agriculture. Excellent!)

I share all that only to share what happened after the presentation.

The organizers handed a survey to each spectator on the way in, and each survey was collected on the way out. (Bouncer-looking characters were placed at the exits to insure thorough collection of data.)

The results from hundreds of surveys were sent to the speakers, which gave me a review of everything from my presentation format and content to the quality of slides and my personal posture. (According to several folks I apparently gave more attention to one side of the room than the other. Who knew? Otherwise, the marks were positive.)

I learned from all of this (in addition to several unsolicited but valuable comments on my presentation skills), that surveys are an incredibly powerful tool. With them, the conference organizers now know exactly who the crowd wants back, whom they don’t want back, and why. And the presenters (whether they are invited back or not) have great feedback to improve future presentations.

I was so amused that I created a simple survey for our wine distributors at Six Sigma Ranch. The result? Most were happy, but most asked for more printed marketing materials. That’s an easy fix, and we were happy to provide it. But if we hadn’t asked, we wouldn’t have known.



The Farm in Alsted Mark

My great grandfather founded his family farm in the 1920’s in Alsted Mark, just outside Vonge, Denmark. There, 20 miles from Billund (later the birthplace of Lego Group in 1932), he and my great grandmother raised 7 of their children and an adopted son on 23 acres.

A few things strike me as interesting about this family-based case study:

First of all, the farm fed and financed the rearing of 8 children, meanwhile employing the two proprietors plus 2 male and 2 female apprentices, all on 23 acres. That’s 14 total people, or 1.6 acres per person.

Secondly, it was farmed according to organic principles, by default. (Nobody had considered chemical fertilizer until it became a by-product of bomb manufacturing during the Second World War.) Thus, fertility and bug control must have been supplied by the resident pigs, chickens and milk cows. In the same fashion, the operation never included a tractor; horsepower came from two Belgian beasts, obviously powered by grass. It’s fair to assume that the operation was also “carbon neutral.”

And lastly, little money was spent on education. That’s not to say that education wasn’t happening, only that it had a positive impact on cash flow instead of a negative one. Through a formal system of apprenticeship, young men and women could learn the trade under the guidance of a “master,” while performing valuable work.

The farm in Alsted Mark operated profitably this way at least until 1955, when my father remembers visiting as a youth. After that, my great grandfather sold it at a nice profit and retired to a job in town, brokering hogs at the Vejle Export Market.

While these observations obviously don’t translate directly to American culture in 2014, I find them interesting to dwell upon.



Great Expectations

I had an enlightening incident with a major retailer last month. Let’s call them Walmart, and let’s say I placed an order for a children’s swimming pool using their site-to-store shipping option.

The confirmation email said the pool would arrive at my local Walmart after two weeks. That’s longer than Amazon. But, Walmart offered the item much cheaper, and that made it worth the wait. I was happy with the promise.

But, after two weeks, it hadn’t arrived. When I called customer service (an epic maze of phone robots), they said it hadn’t left yet. They promised instead to deliver it to my house in another two weeks. But, after two weeks, it again hadn’t arrived. It took an additional two days.

At first, I found all that very irritating. Then I began to consider why it was frustrating me. I thought, what if the retailer had promised delivery in five weeks, and then delivered in four? Would I have been angry then? Much less so. Why? Because it wasn’t really a matter of the time. It was a matter of trust. They made a promise, and they broke it.

Zappos.com, the world’s biggest shoe retailer, has learned this concept and flipped it around. Instead of promising a bit too much and then coming up short, they intentionally over-deliver. If you order a pair of shoes from Zappos.com, they will likely arrive faster than promised, by design. The result? Customers rave to their friends about the over-performance.

I think the lesson here is that meeting expectations builds trust, and trust keeps customers. Exceeding expectations builds trust even faster, and makes customers rave to all their friends.



This Farmer’s Freedom to Fail

I walked in to the world of farming a bit naive.  Okay, fine.  I walked into the world of farming A LOT naive.

When we first jumped into grass-fed beef at Six Sigma Ranch,  beef seemed simple.  We had a lot of grass (4,000 acres worth), surrounding the vineyards for which the property had been purchased.  The plan was as follows:  Buy a handful of cows.  Add a bull.  Get more cows.  Disassemble and deliver to customers.  Repeat.

After a few weeks it became obvious that we needed to move the cows around.  Having never been much of a horse person, I did some homework and found that some cattlemen (the really smart ones, obviously), saved themselves the trouble of boarding a 1000lb+ equine by acquiring instead a trained cattle dog, a particularly charismatic type of border collie with an eye to stare a 2,000lb bull into submission.  A quick Google search revealed a breeder and trainer (who will remain anonymous to protect the nearly innocent), and Isaac the border collie joined the family.

Our new partnership, I envisioned, would leave me waiting at the gate while Isaac silently collected the cattle from acres of hillsides and installed them into the cattle trailer.  I worked with the trainer a few times, paid a surprisingly large sum of money for a 40lb dog, and went on my way to find the herd.

At this point I’ll summarize a lot of details into a few sentences:  It didn’t work.  Those guys that move hundreds of cows with dogs?  They understand both cows and dogs.  And they’ve spent thousands of hours learning to do so.  Me?  I expected the dog (and the cattle for that matter) to work like a remote controlled car.  They didn’t.

Lesson learned?  Make room for some failures.  Design them small, with limited chance of fatalities.  Enjoy, and reflect.  Sir Richard Branson, the epic entrepreneur of hundreds of companies including Virgin Atlantic Airlines, won’t invest  into a company with an owner who hasn’t failed at at least three businesses.  Why?  Because they learned.  They got back on the horse (no pun intended), and they tried again.