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Thursday, June 9, 2011

When the CEO is the working man

by Smyth Performance on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 2:25pm
<span>The power of remembering how hard manual labor really is.</span>

As I finish up the Smyth Jetta based kit project,  I have had the gift of becoming the "body man" these last weeks.  Usually as the head of Factory Five in the old days I would do the creative work and a body shop/ mold maker would clean up the plug and make the molds.  Easy to claim all the credit and rely on a great team of hard working suppliers and employees that made my ideas happen.

When I did the first roadster in 1993, before there was a factory five, I had to use body shop skills that i had learned over five summers painting cars in my dad's home garage(nice and tolerant guy my dad..can you imagine the smell and dust) to make that car a reality....painting cars in college helped pay for school and even after college when I couldn't find an entry level lab job(it was a recession then too) i was able to make 40k a year as a body shop tech in an Oldsmobile dealership...probably the most interesting time of my adult work life... being a chemist and pounding out dents.

So here I am, 48 years old, with a great family, as a major stockholder in two great companies I started or helped start(ffr and local motors),  doing the manual labor on the plug that will launch what looks to be a fabulous company in Smyth performance.  For me a great reminder about what it really takes to innovate in the car business. The simple and very physical demands of this sanding, painting and welding are a bit tougher than my memory serves(but as many an old guy will tell his young employees...we can still do the work).  The fact is that every deadline I set  I have missed by a factor of two since I am now a perfectionist AND I am much slower than that 20 yr old who was in a rush to paint his MGA so he could be cool on the univ of Michigan campus that fall.

Even being slower and a bit more deliberate these days makes for a huge upside.  Overall the project is better AND faster since the talent doing the design and engineering work is also the guy sanding and welding.  In the chaotic and multiple path world of early product development this centralizing of skills moves things along at an amazing pace.

So when I talk to my employees at FFR or with suppliers that ACTUALLY may do the guessed it...I am a much better CEO and customer.  I always thought of myself as very much connected with the folks doing the work(my early days of hands on experience made me think I "understood" how hard it is)...but you forget over the years how much work these people really do for you.

So it is really powerful  to be the strategic marketing and R&D guy, and then going out in the shop and making the physical changes to the tools, and see what will become the Smyth G3F with your own eyes and hands....kind of a mid life reminder before I launch Smyth Performance officially with the great team that is already forming.  For now though there is just the speed of no meetings,  no waste, and instant results.  This will be my last solo project as I will have much needed help as these first beta cars begin shipping, but this baby has my name and blood in it in a very literal and public way.   It is fun and a little scary to hang your reputation and "dirty" creative methods out there on the various forums and facebook to be judged.  When 300,000 people are watching it puts new meaning into an r&d guy being "vested" in his/her idea.   Showing a dirty shop and bondo covered prototype to a Boston Globe reporter with a camera was interesting this early in the project..."so you want to share eh...ok"...within a week the video with the junk in the background  goes worldwide an ends up on every car blog you can think of.  Social networking indeed.  The crux of this new world is that it rewards people and companies that are "real".  You can't fake it on either know what you are doing and can defend the idea and approach you are taking, or you really get beat up.  This is where the working man comes in to play.  If you are sincere and have real learnings to  share, not just things to sell, you can succeed wildly in this new instant world.

As you can tell if you have been following the Smyth project this year, I am a firm believer in quick and dirty prototypes followed by digital documentation and "clean up".  Fully digital product design is lightning fast and great fun to show off to others,  but the products seem to get revised many more times than cars you mock up and sit in.  Humans still are the best computers we have and it shows in the speed we make decisions when able to touch and manipulate the data/parts.

Back to the primer.  I really love this stage.

mark smith
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