What's Your Story, Anyway?Mar 28, 2022
When we launched The LoCo Experience podcast, we had a number of goals. We wanted to create a valuable program that could inspire and entertain, we wanted to increase visibility and understanding of LoCo Think Tank, and our guests, and we sought to give me a safer place than Facebook to have philosophical conversations and policy debate. :) Since we started though, with well over 50 episodes under my belt, I’ve fallen in love with the stories, and I’m so honored to be a party to their sharing.
In this month's blog, I’m going to dip into some business stories, including my own, and enter into an examination of the role that story and narrative play in our lives. How do the stories we tell each other provide clarity and understanding, and how do the stories we tell ourselves impact our direction and habits? Finally, I’ll share some tips and observations on how we can help ourselves, and each other, write a story with a happy ending.
I’m going to lead off with a very-abbreviated version of the journey shared with me by my guest on Episode 56 - Heidi Ganahl. Heidi’s story is filled with tragedy and triumph, and is testimony to the notion that the things that happen to you do not define you, nor do they limit your future..
In the mid 90’s, Heidi was off to a strong start to her adult life. She had a great job that she enjoyed in pharmaceutical sales, a young marriage to a man she loved dearly, and a growing stack of business ideas that she and he had sketched out over dinners out at local restaurants. Life was good - and then it turned sour. For his 25th birthday, her parents gifted him a ride in an open-cockpit stunt plane - and after several stunts and maneuvers the plane crashed to the ground! Her husband and the pilot were killed instantly, and her life was turned upside down.
Heidi struggled through depression after that event, eventually remarried, and later found herself divorced, a single mom with a young daughter. She’d gotten a $1,000,000 settlement from the plane crash - but had lost most of it to two failed businesses and ill-advised loans to family members and friends. The only constant in those years seemed to be the love of her dogs and her family. Then one day, Heidi’s brother encouraged her to dig out a specific old napkin and turn it into a business plan for a doggy daycare, she invested the last of her settlement dollars, and Camp Bow Wow was born!
Heidi leased a former American Legion hall, built an expansive vetting and training policy, opened the doors and started walking her dogs in the park with her daughter, passing out milk bones to dog owners with a coupon for a free first stay. It took off - dog owners loved seeing how much fun their fur babies were having, and referred their friends. Soon, there was a second location, and one of her customers encouraged her to consider franchising. As it turns out, my wife and I were clients of her second franchisee when we lived in Colorado Springs. By 2014, she had a young marriage to her current husband along with three young children - including fresh twins! There were over 150 Camp Bow Wow’s nationwide, with sales over $100 Million and over 3,500 employees, and dozens more locations in the works! Over half the franchises were women-owned businesses, and for both owners and employees it was a chance to take their love of dogs and people and turn it into a career or an enterprise. But, with the young family and Camp Bow Wow needing ever-more attention, something had to give.
Heidi sold the company in 2014, staying on for 2 years as CEO thereafter. She has continued a life of impact through non-profit causes, founded charter schools, and serves as a Regent for the University of Colorado - along with being a mom of 4 and wife to a BBQ chef with a growing restaurant chain. She’s now running for the Republican nomination to be Governor of Colorado, and I have to say I’m cheering her on. You can snoop her more here if you wanna, but her run is not the subject of this post - it’s her story.
We had a disclosure we always had to make when I worked in the investments world - “past performance is not a guarantee of future returns” - and though it’s true - it’s also the best gauge we have. On paper, and probably in spirit, Heidi was not in a good spot when she founded Camp Bow Wow. A single mom, with a recently failed marriage, little income and recent failed business investments. If I was the banker, and she walked in looking for financing I’d be sympathetic but not optimistic.
Founding that business renewed Heidi’s sense of purpose, and offered a chance to write a new chapter in her story. She could work hard, make smart decisions, and create something that people loved. She listened, she learned, Camp Bow Wow grew and prospered, and over time tens (hundreds) of thousands of people and dogs were impacted for good.
I had a chance to make a presentation last week to the Windsor Chamber Leads Group, and I unfolded for them the LoCollaborative Process - our 4-step process for clarifying challenges and opportunities with peers. When I share this with groups, I don’t simply describe the process, I tell a story - usually it’s about me, but sometimes about others who’ve given permission. I don’t share because I like telling stories - though I do - but because it’s supportive to the understanding. If I say - “first step is to set the stage by describing a challenge or opportunity and then asking the group a question” it means very little. But, if I follow that with “here’s an example of a situation I was facing in June of 2015, and here’s the question I asked my chapter” it makes a lot more sense.
When there’s time, we take it to a 3rd level, by involving. What’s a challenge or opportunity that you’re currently facing? - and can we use the LoCollaborative Process on that challenge? Given that experience, it’s not my story that you might remember - but your story - something you will remember.
In my story from June of 2015, I asked about expanding my mobile food business by another trailer - I was working as hard as I could, but still couldn’t squeeze a sustainable profit out of the business. Feedback from my group to help me see myself and my story differently. I wasn’t just a guy who was struggling financially and with an endless to-do list at Bear’s Backyard Grill (my mobile food venture), I was the unique person who took the time to create and develop LoCo Think Tank, and THAT was my scalable business. When we had gone through the process, and it was time for suggestions, one of my fellow members observed “Bear, you should park that food trailer in your backyard, and go get a job!” The next suggestion was the same, and added - “AND you should get a job that’s flexible enough that you can keep working on LoCo Think Tank!” That conversation opened up a new chapter of life to my imagination - it was hard to hear at the time, but it was true.
When we meet new people and talk about the weather, or current events, or what we do, we are on a mission of sorts to find common ground - places of mutual understanding. It’s helpful to know where someone has been to give us a sense where they’re going, and more helpful still if they share with you the destination they envision.
So many stories, so little space to share - but here’s a short one from my banking career. I’d been banking for nearly a decade, and had built a strong network and reputation for being a banker who sought to understand his clients businesses, and helped them to better understand the financial elements at play. I had more success than many in getting startup loans approved, but it wasn’t until a client/mentor/board member of the bank made an encouraging remark that I began to understand why.
“You’re such a good writer!” Rayno remarked, “I swear, if you weren’t a banker you could make a living off your writing! You tell your clients stories in such a way as to help every reader understand the business and reason for the loan at hand, and it makes it so easy for the loan committee to vote yes when they understand.” (this may or may not be an exact quote, but it’s the gist of it anyway)
From that short conversation, the story I told myself about myself was changed - I had a superpower, or at least a really good one - I was a capable writer! I didn’t quit my job and start my novel, but maybe I could have. I could freelance for magazines, or online news, or work for a marketing agency as a content creator, or any of a thousand things that writers can do to make a living (of course very few of these paid more than being a banker!) - but that didn’t really matter. When I eventually did leave my banking career, I started Bear Capital Advisors, LLC - which included a monthly blog. After I started the mobile food business, Bear’s Backyard Grill, that business too featured a regular blog post too. And for over 5 years now, we’ve distributed a monthly newsletter to our subscribers at LoCo Think Tank, and the lead-off has been my blog. And why wouldn’t this be so - I’m a writer!
If there are a thousand people reading this blog, perhaps a hundred of them have heard an encouraging word from Rayno Seaser - he was a master at that craft. I would see Rayno sometimes at his restaurants (Rayno founded The Egg & I franchise) when I was just there having lunch, and he often stopped at nearly every table. Many were longtime customers, or old friends, and others were fresh acquaintances - he had a gift for expressing gratitude, and making people feel special - that was his superpower I believe. His conduit for delivering that superpower to the world was food, and especially breakfast food, and his reach was vast. I wonder if someone pointed out his superpower to him as a young man, or if he discovered it for himself through the restaurants - or if he even knows - but that’s a question for him and a story for another day. Rayno if you’re reading this - you should come on the podcast and share The Egg & I story!
Last fall, I had Allison Seabeck as my guest on The LoCo Experience podcast (Episode 41), and was amazed by her story. After an education as a linguist, and 3 years working at an English school in Japan, Allison and her new husband decided upon Fort Collins as their home. Allison took an entry-level position at a Fort Collins company called Prosci, and 5 years later she was taking the reins as the President of the company upon a private equity buyout of the founder - at the age of 29! She became part of a peer advisory chapter soon after, and led the company through amazing growth in scope and reach. In 2018, Allison departed after another private equity transaction to spend more time with her young children and to pursue other interests. In late 2019, she joined the Warehouse Business Accelerator as Executive Director, and has made much progress toward building world-class manufacturing scaleup accelerator - mostly during covid. I’m excited to see how this chapter in her story plays out - I believe the Warehouse will become an amazing success over time.
When I heard Allison’s story, and her passion for the region’s small business community, I wondered aloud if she might want to become a LoCo Facilitator, perhaps for a future Next Level chapter? “But I’ve not been a founder” - she observed “and so I don’t really feel qualified to lead a group of mostly founders”. We determined - in that same conversation - that she would be more suited to be the facilitator of a key employees group, since that was the role in which she served. In the time since, we’ve added to the ranks of both our Next Level chapters, Allison has been able to execute her Q1 goals for the Warehouse, and we’re now planning for the launch of our first Next Level Catalysts chapter with Allison as the LoCo Facilitator. This group is for the Integrators, Key Employees, and Second-In-Command roles within the businesses of our largest members, and has some amazing people ready to become a part of it.
Allison made such an impression upon me through her story, and her values and business principles so resonated with my own, that I was eager to intertwine our stories in some way. Though not often as dramatic, companies are built in this way - the founder or owner has a valuable product or service, and they demonstrate strong values or character, and they attract others to be a part of that story. When you see those 30 year old businesses with 27-year employees, it’s because those individuals chose to intertwine their own story with that of the enterprise - I’m a part of something bigger than myself.
Whether you’re asking someone to go out for coffee, or to come to work for you at your business, or to take your hand in marriage, it’s an invitation to mingle your stories. If it’s a one-and-done coffee, these storylines may only touch for an hour, an employee may connect for many a season, and a marriage is more like a braided rope, when done correctly.
So be prepared to share the story of where you’ve been, and more importantly where you’re going to help others imagine where their stories might intersect with yours. These intersections are best encouraged by listening to understand rather more than to reply. And, when you spot a superpower, don’t hesitate to share an encouraging word - you never know when you might kick off a powerful new chapter in someone’s life.