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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

There is no Social Media. There is Facebook.

As a guy who pretty much launched his new business and brand on facebook and a discussion forum( I am in a position to relay my learnings from the experience and it boils down to a simple change in our society...Facebook.

I am watching the transformation as you all are of how we keep in touch and it is facebook.  I am watching how we learn about brands and new products...and it is facebook.  I have created a niche in the car world and reached out to that specific group of guys and I did it on facebook.  I watch my kids and their friends swap pictures and their everyday lives and it is facebook that enables it.

O.K. for me it wasn't all facebook...the forum had something to do with the launch of the brand, but even the forum guys are on my facebook page now since I just don't have time to log on to every discussion group that mentions the new Smyth car.  I am forced to talk in one area and that area is facebook.  I am forced to reach out to my prospects in the kit car world and that reach is done using facebook.  I have over 10,000 fans and the effort was basically a thousand bucks and a series of interesting updates on the facebook Smyth Performance page.

If I am not proof that the world of business has changed I don't know who is.  The brand is out there now, the discussions are taking place as the customers decide if I am worthy, and I didn't use much in the way of magazines or traditional media.  When the old school news ran a story about the effort such as when the Boston Globe's Scott Kirsner ran a piece last year,  it was the blog traffic that was reposted on all the auto sites that generated the interest..not the globe.  The same thing has happened with every news piece that Smyth Performance has been mentioned in.  What an interesting shift.  On one hand the traditional Sunday newspaper was spread around the world in a week using the miracle of "social media", while locally the story died the same week.  The daily papers need to get paid for there investigative reporting that builds these stories and the raw material that the web is taking for free as a link.  These reposts are great for the subject(in this case Smyth performance) but don't really benefit the originators of the content.  There will be some interesting movement in the news field is my guess just as there was in the music business.

So if you are a laggard and not joining facebook out of some fear of privacy being invaded you are spot on...but you are coming into the world of facebook eventually just like you did when cell phones came bought into a service plan from a wireless carrier even though you swore you wouldn't.  The benefit of knowing what people/companies/friends are up to in one 5 minute sit down session on facebook is just too powerful to ignore.  So welcome to the present.  It will never be the same.  So far I like it.  So far it is allowing me more time with loved ones.  So far it has made my work day more efficient.  So far.  I will let you know if that changes.

I will talk to you later....on facebook.

Mark Smith

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Getting Dished and Dishing it out.

Its easy to pontificate when you think you know what you are doing in a technical field.  Self praise flows easily on these pages as I have convinced myself that I actually am pretty good at building interesting machines these last 20 years or so.  I openly congratulate my company Factory Five Racing or Local Motors when they have wins in this fun business.  I am also openly critical of my brother Dave's decisions at Factory Five when I feel things are going awry and the core successful business is at risk of not making money.  The kudos as well as the reminders of good tactics are my way of helping from the outside as an owner and director.

As an on the ground founder of Smyth Performance though, I have to listen to the critics and that is not as easy.  The other day I posted a picture of Smyth's young welder/all around employee Eric welding the last of a positioned tube on the welding fixture.  Everyone(including me) loves the cameo inside progress shots that I have been sharing on facebook so it was just another fun shot that documented the evolution of the prototype into full production.

After a few cool comments I received several critical ones re Eric welding in short sleeves....wait a guys can't criticize me...I am Mark Smith the fun and interesting 20 year car guy in a shop sharing all this great stuff with you.  My first thought. Honest.  I even posted a bit later in the thread that Eric was just tacking and that is why it was O.K....

Right.  Way to go Mark.  Your first employee who is at the start of his working life and you are justifying the young man welding in a t-shirt.  Well the power of constructive criticism, if you can get past your stupid ego, is  just that...constructive.  It is actually pretty rare for smart people to give bad advice...the problem is that some smart people have trouble taking the advice.

Eric is working on the Alpha car this morning because he came to work in shorts again.  Now I get to step up and become a mentor and a better boss.  Just because I am psycho busy with my own work at Smyth is no excuse...we are going to wal-mart before lunch and we are getting the full set up of work clothes.  We are headed over to the  Welding Supplies place and fit the leather arm/chest guard like I should have on the first day.  I have been running companies that join steel with fire for years...I knew exactly what he needed and I was too busy to do it.  When are you ever too busy to watch out for the safety of your people.  Should Eric have done this himself...maybe. But I definitely have the responsibility of making sure he is safe at work.

The absolute power of an enthusiast base like we have at Smyth Performance on facebook is that out of over 10,000 fans we have thousands of really experienced and knowledgeable folks who are willing to share their life learnings with us.  I have been doing this a long time.  I love what I do and will never retire.  I really like the reminders that I am not so fancy as I think I am.

People who know me well will tell you that I never shut up when the topic turns to my passion of building machines...hopefully they will also tell you that when I do quiet down I am listening carefully to what you say.

Mark Smith

Old News is Good News. Front Wheel Drive turns into mid engine sports car, a history(1970-2011)

At the end of the 60's the boys at Fiat cars took what was to become the new Fiat 128 front wheel drive economy transverse engine and gearbox and put it in the back of a show car.  The Fiat x 1/9 was born.  Front wheel drive is a tight packaging problem for an engineering group and the europeans were the real innovators in the field.  Our idea of front wheel drive i the U.S. was a big block toronado...not exactly the economy car and efficient package europe needed.

So Fiat put the whole front drive transverse engine/trans/driveshafts/brakes/spindles from the front of the 128 and put it ito a little sports car.  If you lock down the steering tie rods fwd works like a charm in the back.  A 2000 lb car with maybe 85 horsepower was still a hoot to drive.  A terrible car, but no car tried any harder than the x 1/9.

Next up was the new x-car platform from GM and the chysler k-car platform around 1980.   These new front drive cars were  designed to save the companies and usher in the era of frugal front drivers to america.  Pontiac eventually did  what Fiat did in 1970...they took the 2.5 liter iron duke 4 cyl econobox engine and front wheel drive transmission/suspension/brakes from the x-car platform and moved it to the rear of a little mid engined sports car.  Over 300,000 of these cars were sold...not bad for a two seat commuter that looked and performed like a sports car.

There have been a few fwd to rwd conversions in the kit car world as well  but none of them ever sold well.  Either too expensive like the k1 attack or just not thought out well they never caught on.  I really think that if they had launched some of the early 4 cyl mid engine kits today with our 4 buck a gallon fuel prices they would have done fine.  But fuel stayed below 2 bucks a gallon all the way into the new why go small here in America...cobras were king of the home built universe...heck they still are really.  We had our trucks, we were not even thinking global warming, we were in the good old U.S.A where cheap gas was our birthright.  That didn't take too long to turn around.

The car business today is really simple.  We all know that if fuel isn't 4 dollars a gallon now it will be soon.  We all agree that burning it all and putting it in the air is probably not the best thing for the planet.  Efficiency can be fun at three levels can zip around in tiny nimble cars AND save the planet AND save you bank account.  Most of us are keeping the v12's in the garage for date night.

For the last three years I have been publicly sharing the fun i am having building this little G3F sports car out of a jetta sedan.  I proves that fun is contagious.  V8 guys love the car, japanese car fans love the car, vw/audi guys can't get enough since the old beetle projects really are not around anymore,  and we all are having fun with a kit that actually blows cold air or hot air into an OEM quality cockpit and dash.  The simplicity of an MG, Jag or Cobra from the 60's is what makes those cars so very special...but a daily driver is not a race has to have a bit of comfort to sell well.

So here we are about to ship number 2 and 3 frames that will be bolted on to the unframed Jettas waiting out there in the kit car project world.  Our version of a hybrid doesn't refer to the refers to our frame for an unframed car hybrid frame concept.  This is our contribution to the front wheel drive to mid engine story that started with Fiat in 1970...but we are keeping the econobox instead of making a new platform by and adding a frame to the rear of an existing car.  Time will tell how big a financial success the G3F is, but huge volume or just a few hundred doesn't matter to us cars project guys...we just want to build and drive then repeat the process.

A huge thanks to all those VW, Fiat, Chysler and GM engineers who made the front wheel drive economy cars so very easy to work over....without you we wouldn't have all these ultra compact engines/trannies to play with.  I will stick to making frames and bodies that use all that fabulous engineering and let VW engineer and manufacture the parts for the drivetrain...too rich for my blood...its more fun that way.

Mark Smith

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are You Really Working? Why an "Effort Ethic" doesnt fly.

I had a great conversation with my operations gifted father on Sunday that revolved around the concept of work.  As he was asking me how my long days were going we dove into our real definitions.  I am not talking about effort here...I am talking about work.  If you remember from physics, Work is a product of force times the distance moved.  I am sticking to this definition literally for this discussion.  Work is not force or is force multiplied by the distance moved.  If you push all day you have put in a solid 8 hrs of effort, but if the block or project you are working on didn't guessed didn't do any work at all.  Many people in management forget this simple formula or never think of it this way.  This is why we hold fancy mba's and managers to task for the results they get in business.  20 hour "effort" days without tangible results are definitely an amazing feat and require huge sacrifices...but you will probably be looking for a job if you don't figure out how to get some actual work done.  Work requires real progress toward your goal.  Effort is just that...pushing.

In an r&d environment we cheat this rule all the time and can get away with calling effort "work" since the tangible progress is hard to measure in the early days of a concept or project.  But eventually, even the brain trust r&d guys have to come up with something sale-able and with impact for the business.  They can't just push all day.  They, like all knowledge workers have to produce a work product.  If you are digging ditches all day you can see the work you do piling up that used effort and moved the flippin dirt a distance....and you got paid to do it...check...all good.  As a manager of an organization of effort you have to deliver the numbers over time.  If you don't what are you doing all day with all that effort?  If you are not adding value to your organization and you are getting a managers paycheck there can be big problems despite the effort ethic that you have.

The disdain some people have for the legal profession or any bill by the hour service provider is based on this as well.  Look, a lawyer provides a valuable service in my opinion, accountants too....they save you enormous pain if you have a good one helping you in this complex regulatory and legal world we all do business in.  But in the end they get paid even when they push on the rock all day...even when no "work" has been done.  This is what ticks people off and it is why the choice of these service providers should be one of your most thoughtful decisions as you start a new business or manage your mature one.  Get someone who delivers tangible results and a work product.  If your law firm constantly delivers more questions than it answers, get a new one.  If they eliminate problems and clear your plate of issues that are distracting you...keep em.  If your accountant delivers tax advice that saves you money, bingo, work was done.  If the receipts are all organized and trouble free, your bookeeper did work too.  It is not the hours they spend on the task but the results they get you.  If they can do the job in half the time and spend the rest with their families they probably can charge high rates and have happy customers...don't be afraid of expensive help..they might just be that good.

I am always very cautious when someone works very long hours at their job.  Over the long run a quality thinker and worker gets amazing amounts of real work done in the allotment of time in a workday...super human effort is only temporary even in highly charged environments like start ups.  If I am putting in 20 hr days day after day my bet is that there is a lot of effort and not much work being done...a disaster in the business world as well as in your family life since you are never home.  Worse yet is the fact that you are never home AND you have nothing to show for it.  Ruin defined.

So if you find yourself working incredible hours and never quite getting the reward or praise that some get who are home early...think about the work you are doing, the real work.  Stop efforting so much and get to pays really well and is easy to spot.

Mark Smith

Friday, September 9, 2011

Welcome to the Small Time: Sub-car Innovation

Coming up with something truly innovative in the car business is a real challenge.  Millions of people are passionate about cars and the various things we enthusiasts do with them.  This leads to many brains working on the same theme...making most models of the modern automobile "better" and different.  I put better in quotes because from some views the improvements may not look like a step up to some...but that is the point...making the car into what YOU want it to be.

I have been lucky enough to come up with two real breakthroughs in what I call the sub-car business.  This small part of the car business caters to the home builder.  Our guys that I have been selling car kits to for 15 years have been reading those small ads in the back of Popular Mechanics magazine since they were know the ones....usually an ad for a mini desktop drill/lathe/milling machine(the ad still runs today I'll bet).  I am proud that I own the largest kit car company in the history of the genre but am brought down to earth when I look at the actual volume of kits we make.  At 500 kits a year(even our best years in the early 2000's we were still just under 1000 per anum) pale compared to the real car business.  Chevy sells more vettes in a week than the entire kit car industry as a whole probably delivers in a year...and the Corvette is the epitome of a niche ultra low volume car for GM.  We are not even on the car world map if you look at the volumes. The sub-car business defined.

So what are my personal contributions to this sub-car world?  Way before my work in Wareham these last 15 years or so the true kit car business was born with the Meyers Manx in the 60's.  Bruce Meyers took a VW beetle and removed the whole body, cut out a foot of the middle of the frame and put a new fiberglass dune buggy body on top.   Sure there were a few kit cars made as early as the fifties...but we are talking insignificant volume before Bruce.  With the meyers manx and all the copycat dune buggies that followed, a few weekends later you as the kit customer were driving a wacky VW dune buggy on the street or off road.  A simple idea that Meyers made work as a business for a while.   Sub-car but far from sub-par since the transformed car delivered on the promise of fun on the cheap.

Throughout the 70's the proliferation of VW beetle framed kit cars in almost any design was what defined the category.  T buckets, Bradley GT's, Kelmark GT's, porsche 356's, as well as the ever popular dune buggies became real business.  Still the sub-car business of course since volumes probably never exceeded a few thousand a year, but a business nonetheless.  With a few exceptions these cars all used the VW beetle frame and kept all the mechanicals in their original locations...rebodies but still a VW beetle frame underneath...not exactly hi performance hardware.  Several guys used the performance aftermarket that had flourished for the beetle, but over 150 horsepower was pretty rare.

Later on mid seventies we saw the advent of the first Arntz cobra replica. Even though Steve Arntz and his replicas fizzled as a business, he was responsible more than anyone else in ushering us into the high performance fully framed kit car.  The cobra was a perfect choice to replicate and started a market that is still the backbone of the kit car industry.  Note..the term Cobra is owned buy Ford and licensed to Shelby for his cars...Factory Five and Smyth Performance are NOT connected to Ford or  Shelby.  So back to our discussion...when you talk replica vintage roadsters or a historic view of cobra replicas you will see that everything changed in 1993 next to a transmission shop in Framingham, Massachusetts.

In 1993 after business school and while still working as a Chemist/product manager at Avery Dennison(markers and inks were fun too), I finished the first prototype car for what became Factory Five Racing.  By taking the popular 5.0 liter mustang and using all the mechanical/suspension/wiring components off the car and designing them into a brand new full frame with a replica body the birth of the one donor cobra replica or "roadster" was complete.  Cobra replica kit cars had been around for years but were made from the parts of many different cars...jag rear ends, ford big block engines from the 60's  custom wiring, suspensions/wheels/brakes from all sorts of cars such as the pinto and assorted MG's.  They had become the most popular kit car in the world by the 90's because they were the first kit car to deliver the goods...they looked fast and drove really fast.  My twist was driven by the fact that these kits were a bloody fortune to make if you wanted a nice car.  I took the 5.0 Mustang from the late eighties that I knew well and had been beating up for years, disassembled a wreck 5.0 in my sisters garage, and swore that I would use every nut and bolt I could from the car and make a replica cobra that had the quality I wanted at a price I could manage.
The most popular kit car of all, an FFR roadster on the Dyno

I was able to squeeze all the parts from one v8 hi-po car into that custom engineered round tube frame platform that I designed and welded up specifically for those 5.0 parts.  When I was done you could take a wrecked mustang for 3 grand and finish a bona fide street race cobra replica for another 10 grand.  The time searching for parts became one purchase of the donor car.  The aftermarket for the v8 mustang was enormous.  I got a B- (maybe even a C)on the project a few years before as a last project for my Bentley MBA in 1992 and that sealed the story of the launch of Factory Five in 1995 when I invited Dave out to start FFR.  He has run FFR since I left in of the best feel good fun small business stories around.

The domination of the kit market by FFR is small time kit car history though.  Only a handful of kit car enthusiasts even care about the lineage of these bastard cars so it really isn't too big of a deal in the business world.  The fact that we used EVERYTHING from the mustang was ground breaking AND a big deal innovation wise...who would have thought you could use the instrument cluster turned backwards, or remove and cut the plastic gauges from the cluster and remount them behind a vintage looking aluminum dash while keeping the entire computer controlled wiring harness and engine controls in tact?   Who would have thought that you could take a strut front suspension from the mustang and convert it into a double wishbone high performance front end with nothing but a coil over shock and a clever welded conversion mount?  Sub-car business innovation at its very best in my very slanted opinion.  My first contribution to the car world is still a pretty good one and all the quality folks over at FFR work tirelessly today to ship the best home built car kits in the world.

Seatek Diesels 750HP
That Bio-Diesel sticker always elicits Q's
As most in the industry know I left FFR for Dave to run in  2002 after we survived the ford/shelby trademark case.  I went totally diesel crazy for my next venture Smyth Performance while keeping my half of the company even today.  After repowering a 50' scarab with twin 750 hp seatek diesels and surface drives,  I realized that the economy wasn't quite ready for a big expensive kit boat project.  So back to cars I went and bought the jetta wagon diesel as the test bed in March of 2008 for what became the current Smyth G3F diesel sports car.  After 6 years away from FFR  I finally found my next true contribution to the car world.  Designing a frame add-on for a frameless  car(VW jettas are sheet metal unibodies in design like most modern cars and have no frame) and moving the engine to the rear from its position in the front,  a new category of car was born.  We transformed a frameless econo box jetta into a fully framed/reinforced mid engined sports car.  It was a wild idea from the start with absolutely no support from even my fellow engineers at FFR, let alone from Dave.  Dubbed the franken VW by my brother in the early concept days in 2008 his skepticism remains today and is understandable...a four door economy car cut up and turned into a sports car while using the entire sub structure and floorpan of the donor jetta?  Really?

I remember showing up at shows with the first FFR fuel injected replica and hearing the other cobra replica companies say"no one will buy a fuel injected cobra".   I think of that today as I launch a very interesting G3F to a part of the home built market that has not been served.  The fuel injected FFR segment of the replica market ended up being bigger after a few years than the entire market was initially, and I am hoping the same thing happens again here with these little VW's.  I have a feeling that this car as the greenest car you can possibly drive(doesn't hurt that it peels rubber for a city block) will change the kit industry for the better and usher in a wave of interesting small car kits.  It still amazes me that the hybrid framed G3F came out as cool as it did.

The innovative part of the Smyth  idea was the reuse of so much of the donor car.  It goes beyond the mustang donor concept since it preserves the whole floorpan and the mechanicals while becoming the ultimate recycled car.  It even stays a Jetta since the VIN is still there along with all the pollution control/crash equipment as well as all VW suspension parts.  At 2300 lbs and tuned up to 300 horsepower with a turbo gas or diesel engine the Jetta based kit creates a new kit category that builds on the legacy of the first VW kits in the 60's.  Add a frame to a frameless car and move all the parts around and presto...value added sports car that deserves the money you will put into it and delivers the performance of a mid-engined car.  Good bye econobox and hello sports car special...all for 7900 bucks and an old jetta.  Bingo.

Special and fun doesn't have to cost 30 grand IF you build it yourself.  And that is the real power of the kit car industry, finding ways to build amazing machines in the sub-car universe that all us car tuners/builders live in.  If you spend your time in the little ads in the rear of the magazines...join us for some 60mpg, 14 sec 1/4 mile, 1.0+g cornering fun for 10 grand.

Mark Smith