Meeting my Mentor
It rained the first day and what struck me foremost about Mr JC Vachon, was his hat.
The hat was distinctively British, beige with a short double brim. It looked like someone had morphed a pith helmet into Sherlock Holmes deerstalker.
Some people dress to communicate a message. Was he trying to communicate “adventurer”, “detective”, “I’m British” or … simply “I don’t like rain on my head’?
He was certainly well prepared for the weather with a dark grey London Fog coat and rubber pull-on boots, but I couldn’t help feeling that every aspect of his attire spoke another message.
We were in Quebec, the French province of Canada, and with a name like "Vachon", he most certainly wasn’t a London native, and though his English was perfect, I soon learned he could joke in French “joual” like a dockworker.
We had scheduled to meet in a bistro in the beautiful resort town of St Sauveur, in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec where I’d set up a software company. My financial partner, Michel, had announced he was retiring and recommended Mr Vachon to take over the management of our books as a bookkeeper.
As we sat down for a lunch where I expected to simply meet another “bean counter”, Michel instead introduced this man as someone who had managed 18 companies, worked for Proctor and Gamble, Petro-Fina and had been managing director of Cousins Canada, a British company which might have explained the hat. He had also run Michel’s father’s company and then sold it for several million dollars.
He said — “You’re in good hands with JC, you should get to know each other”… with a chuckle.
I was a little taken aback as I realized this “bean counter” could easily be a millionaire, in a financial plane well beyond mine. I re-assessed the suit. It was an impeccable light blue business suit, with jeweled cufflinks, and I wondered exactly how rich was this guy? His wireframe glasses gave him more the appearance of an academic, than a businessman,yet everything about him was polished and flawless, without a thread out of place… Every detail was a message.
Even his cologne was designed to pass a message. It was subtle, but pervasive and made me think of gentleman’s clubs and leather chairs.
Though I was sure Michel had told JC everything already, I felt obliged to dole out my standard “elevator pitch” - “ I & A Research is ‘Code farm’ that obtains software contracts in Silicon Valley, and then brings them back to Canada to architect at lower cost than the insanely high Valley prices of the year 2000. Using a combination of in-house developers and outsourced Ukranian developers we build good quality software and send it back to the Valley, finished and tested, ready to sell”. Yup, 30 seconds… I nailed it.
While I was spilling out the carefully worded elevator pitch I knew in my sleep, JC had been sizing me up, there was a twinkle in his eyes, and there was a long pause. Then he asked a simple question:
“So, what is your 5 year plan?”
Oops, I suddenly felt less like a company president and more like a kid caught for cutting school, I had to admit, I had no real business plan other than “do what we’re doing”. Our business had been built on the principle of “never get bored” and “try not build anything that would hurt anyone”, and our history of developing product lines for companies, but we were winging it, there was no “plan”.
We had brought over a few top developers from Ukraine to work in Canada who we respected enormously for their high quality code, and then hired a few local developers to round out the projects.
It was a modest company, we weren’t very profitable, but it was fun, often exciting, yet we had no idea of where it would head. No, there was no real plan - we were driving it by the seat of our pants.
The only plan was — maybe we can keep hiring people and getting more contracts, and get a bigger office.
Our office was in the attic of a souvenir store. The ceiling was angled down so if you stood up too fast, you’d bang your head on the wood paneled ceiling.
I imagined it wouldn’t take much effort for Mr Vachon to do the books, there wasn’t that much to record.
My personal finances at the time were very modest. I had enough to live on but had a rather large debt to pay for personal loans to me for my car and house, and no clear plan on how to pay it off. When times were lean, my staff earned significantly more than I did, and we had juggled.
He said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Yes, I knew Ben Franklin, too. Who was this old guy who I was hiring to simply do my books, telling me, I was planning to fail?
Instantly, I put up my defense - “Look, I am self taught, nobody taught to program and design software, nobody taught me to run a business, I just did it, and I’m not doing too badly, thank you very much”.
“So, in say 5 years what will you be doing?” I hadn’t really ever thought much farther than a few months ahead and 5 years was like some other lifetime, so I defended lack of planning, which was stupid, I know, but that’s what I did.
“Nothing I plan ever works out, you know the adage: ‘Humans plan, God laughs’. I just notice opportunities and hopefully bump into the right people, and then I manage to eke out a living”.
I didn’t tell him the truth which was that I often prayed for some sort of guidance to direct my life and help me get to some point where I could breath a bit. At that point in time, I didn’t realize that my prayers were about to be answered.
He said,”you know, my guess you probably could use a bit of mentoring on your business”. This probably was a kind way of saying, “Kid you don’t know sh*t about business”, but it provoked in me a sudden sadness, a realization that for all of my life I’d been craving someone to help make my path easier, someone to talk to about my insecurities, my loneliness, my fear that my lack of knowing what the heck I was doing would someday leave me begging on the street.
I vaguely understood the concept of what a “mentor” was. There had been people who touched my life and moved me along my path, but they had been away from me for many years and I was alone with my life, and though my business had had my partner Michel handling books, the other 95% of the business was my responsibility.
It flashed in my mind that having someone “mentor me”
who did nothing to help me was a distinct possibility and this could be complete bull, but my reading of this unusual person, who had obvious financial success, with the kind twinkle in his eye, told me that I should trust him”.
The next two hours were confessional where I poured out all my worries, family problems, customers that weren’t paying on time, how scared I was telling employees what to do, my cluelessness of how to sell our services and my dreams of what life would be if only I knew how to get there. I had studied Tony Robbins, I had read hundreds of self-help books, which had indeed helped me, but honestly, I wasn’t getting anywhere and my predominant emotion was fear of failure.
He said, “Look, I can guide you a bit, but I don’t work for free, how much do YOU charge for your work?”, At the time it was $85 an hour for design, which I thought was a bit high for Quebec and a bit low for Silicon Valley and for the year 2000, I considered it a sweet spot where people would hire me considering it a deal, and I could still afford to pay myself and my office rent.
So, he said “Okay, I’ll charge you $50 an hour and I’ll come see you every week or two and we’ll see what we can do to get things in order.”. I thought that for the advice of a millionaire, this was a rather unusual price, I wondered what was the deal? If this was a goodness of the heart thing, then it should be free, if this was a business undertaking, hell my lawyer was $150 an hour at the time.
In any case, I agreed, we shook hands, he left. As he was leaving he asked, “Oh, and one thing…do you have a photocopier?”
“Huh? Uh, yes we do.”, I replied.
“Great, first lesson is this — when you get back to your office, put your hand on the copier and copy a picture of your hand. Spread out your fingers nice and big. Got that?”
“Uh yeah, but why?”
“What I want you to do is take the photocopy and stick it on the back of your office door", he told me, dead-pan.
“Okay, and this is so…?”
He smiled and said, “Well, if you ever want a pat on the back as President of your company, I want you to rub your back up against the paper on your door”, and he gestured wiggling his shoulders up against a wall, “because that, Mr. President, is the only ‘pat on the back’ a President is every going to get running a company”…
He laughed out loud, I laughed more cautiously as this was both true and bittersweet, and for many years thereafter whenever he spoke of responsibility, his name for me was “Mr. President”.
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