English / 06.03.2020 / 2224

Whetstone for attention

Nikolay Mokhov, author from the Dark Side of Business

— So the secret to success is to be in the right place at the right time?" - Someone asked in the Dark Side chat. How can I comment on this? Let me tell you about a multi-million dollar deal I once made. I'm not telling the story to show off as the money was already spent for parties in the city a long time ago — there is nothing to brag about. I'm telling the story to illustrate one principle.

So, here is the story. At a restaurant in Moscow, there was this construction businessman, his PR guy, and me. I had already handed over a report on my work. I was having some coffee, meanwhile listening to them discussing the promotion of business operations abroad.

— For now, we can post articles in the American press, - the PR man whines. He lists some names and titles.

— I don't want to promote my business right now. Our capacity is overloaded with orders — we do not have time to build, - the constructor answers.

- Here is something about PR. It's something that should be done constantly, - the PR man bends his line.

— We have already collected orders, we are behind deadlines — -the businessman defends himself. And he starts explaining the difficulties of managing large companies.

If it didn't work today, it will work tomorrow. From a discussion of a dead topic, a million-dollar contract can be born...

The conversation loops. Then I barged in.

- Listen, let me optimize your processes for you. If you want, you can get a text message every morning — which object has problems and which contractor you should give beans to. The information will be reliable... Imagine the impact on productivity.

We signed the first contract with that constructor in the same cafe right on a napkin... Was I in the right place at the right time? Absolutely. But so was the PR guy. And a lot of other people were there. But I left with the money, and they left with nothing.

The year before that. We were sitting in a warm company. Having a drink.

— I had a classmate from China. His relatives sent him two wagons of Chinese soups. And he didn’t know what to do with them, " said the drinking companion.

- Well, well... What kind of soups?

It turned out that the soup was Japanese, but made in China. Something like instant noodles. It was total junk, but tastes quite good when you're hungry. We meet the Chinese student, and he said:

— I have a warehouse full of those soups. They are going to expire in six months, so I can just give them away. And we can sign a contract for the next batch.

Naturally, I thought, what an opportunity! We were going to get rich! We hustled and tried to squeeze those soups everywhere. From kiosk chains in universities to the Ministry of defense. I showed everyone I met - look what a delicious thing it is. I almost got gastritis. Not even gastritis… An ulcer! But still nothing was sold. We offered a lot of freebies in the beginning and absolute zero in the end. So,was the secret somewhere else?

Here is another story. And IT guy ran into me:

— I was talking to a Chinese guy. He offers a batch of trackers (devices that track where your car is located) very cheap for only four hundred thousand. Shall we take them?

I didn't pay much to the IT guy, but I didn't limit the purchases. He was shy to ask for a big salary — he preferred to steal.

— What are we going to do with these trackers?

- We could have a car alarms business instead.

We calculated this and one tracker was a thousand rubles each and twenty thousand for installation. The margin was huge: fasten your seat belts, we are about to take off. We did not take off. The plane slid off the runway. The trackers kept waiting in the warehouse for six months. And so they went into oblivion. And please note: with all of my failures, I never kept running after them for decades trying to find at least some profit. It doesn't work — to hell with it.

At twenty, I didn't care what I sold. Be it a soup, even a tracker, even if a builder tracking program. But, I kept my brain in good shape all the time, jumping at every opportunity like a hungry cat rushing to catch a mouse. Sometimes, it gave a result, more often the output was zero or minus. But I did not despair. If it didn't work today, it will work tomorrow. From a discussion of a dead topic, a million-dollar contract can be born...

A textbook story of Onassis. Aristotle Socrates Onassis was a Greek from a wealthy family. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But the war between Greece and Turkey started. The descendants of the great philosophers were not the best warriors. The family was ruined. Onassis went to South America for a better life. He took up any rough job he could find. He even worked as a waiter... Then one day, he offered a customer a cigar from Greece. The customer liked the cigar — ordered another box of the same Cigar. So the smart Greek turned from waiter into an importer of cigars. First, he brought a box, then they came in steamboats… And the access to the clubs allowed to make the next million-dollar deal and it was oil. But that was a different story…

Question: how many people were in the same place and at the same time with Onassis? And how many of them became billionaires? The answer to the second question is zero. Clubs in Argentina at the beginning of the 20 century were the richest institutions. Thousands and thousands of people passed through this right place at the right time. Only one became a billionaire. But here is something the history does not mention: how many visitors did Onassis offer cigars to? And what else did he offer? An experienced merchant will tell you that one successful transaction sometimes accounts for 99 failures.

I will add another story here. A story about an amazing builder. For reference. I've talked to thousands of builders. From very large businessmen to the smallest contractors. There was only one that caught my interest. How did he attract my attention? This guy was systematically reducing construction costs. The purchasing manager came to him:

— We found sand here... the price mentioned was very cheap...

The builder called the finance guy:

— At what price did we buy sand last year and the year before? Prepare a report for me... So... In five minutes, come to me with a document.

He put down the phone and asked the purchaser unpleasant questions:

— Why is it so expensive?" Why are you bringing me a bad offer?

"The exchange rate has changed... Crisis... Inflation...

— Because of the crisis, we must reduce the production costs. Let's think — how can we buy sand cheaper?

Any construction site has hundreds of materials. Dozens of types of equipment. There are building permits. There are management expenses. And my friend kept asking — how to reduce the cost of each process? The answer to this question brought up other questions. What is cheaper: to buy sand from suppliers or to buy a quarry and mine? Let's go check out the sand quarries and calculate. What is the most expensive thing in construction? Time. How do we reduce construction time? Who builds the fastest in the world? Let's hire the managers from this company. Let's buy out all their construction documentation. What can significantly reduce the cost of the construction process? New materials. What startups are there in this area? Maybe we should buy them?

For decades, every single day, he asked others the same question: how to make it cheaper? As a result, when the market competitors had a cost of 700-800 dollars per square meter, his’ was 300-400 dollars.

Why is only one builder in a thousand so smart? Well, he is the only one who is not lazy to sharpen his attention. It is not boring for him to ask the same question to himself and others every day. Most of his experiments in reducing the cost of construction do not lead to anything. It spends tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars a year on failed attempts to reduce cost. But a successful investment pays off more than all the failures.

How many people give up after the first bad deal? Well, the majority do. How many young mathematicians tried to prove Fermat's theorem? After spending a few months or years, they gave up. Only one mathematician continued to derive evidence patiently and with pleasure, rejoicing every day, living with his mother in a cheap apartment. How many young writers have been rejected by publishers? A lot. And who continued to write despite the refusals? Salinger. Stephen King. Bradbury.

"So, does it mean that perseverance wins?" - the readers asked in the chat.

Not exactly. Any failure is a whetstone. But it's a magic whetstone. Some become dull from contact with it, while others sharpen their attention. How do you distinguish the first from the second? It's incredibly simple. What is failure for you? A misery or new knowledge?

I used to fight a lot when I was a kid. And in the beginning I was beaten. They broke my arm, my ribs, I even broke my pinky once. It hurt like hell. But it was interesting. I was curious: aha, I was beaten at that time, but if I didn't fall for this trick — what would have happened? I acted differently and got hit in the forehead. Bumps grew on my head. A black eye changed color under the eye. But my curiosity was too strong and I got into the fight again, but in a slightly different way. And of course, I remember the moment when my enemy was lying down and I was kicking him. Victory! If you only knew... But before that, many times I was lying in the mud, and I was kicked...

And since then, every defeat in a fight, in business, in creativity for me is a drop of knowledge. My knowledge grew. My attention sharpened. And one day I noticed that the fight started long before I made a fist. Negotiations begin long before the first word is spoken. A sale begins long before you come to the meeting and even set it up. And my story today began long before the question was asked in the chat…

Our attention is like a samurai's sword. And just like a samurai sword is sharpened over the years. We also sharpen our attention to failure. Failure is our whetstone. And of course, if we are at the right time and in the right place with a sharp sword, then we will cut everyone down beautifully. But if our sword only gets blunted by each failure... If failures make us ask "what went wrong" instead of "what can I do differently"... If after every failed deal, we after all the participants in an attempt to return the money… Then we will sit at the same table with millionaires with a blunt samurai sword and fail to understand: what they are saying, what they want, what they are interested in, and what is important to them? Sit and be sad and stupid. Dump out, looking into space, inwardly cursing the whole world, with its successes and luck. Cursing, unable to find a place where we belong.

Dentist's Spartakiade. Or the life of Spartacus

— I used to run like a wolf! I looked at everything in a skirt. And now?.. — says Sparta-cus — a strong man in his 60s.

— The computer is frozen — I can't do an X-ray. Let's go for a smoke, — Spartacus is the dentist of dreams. Even in the middle of treatment, he can offer a smoke break on his balcony, the way to which is through the hallway with a shelving unit. On the shelves are Soviet books on dentistry with new-fashioned magazines...


Escaping Fate?

My grandfather Semyon escaped dekulakization, a wave of Soviet repressions in the 1930s. He grew up in a big family. His father died fighting in the First World War, and his grandfather (my great-grandfather) had a fairly decent, by rural standards, household. He had a sturdy house, some horses… In the Soviet thirties, this was a death sentence.


Corporations and Attempting to Escape Them

If you think there’s no one behind the success of the latest star, rich businessman, or even talented writer... Then you should probably go to the eye doctor. There’s definitely something wrong with your eyesight.

“We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants,” as a very wise man once put it. It’s never been more true: all modern achievements resulted from joint efforts, not from prideful individualism.


Rule of Thumb

For many years, we on the Dark Side have been repeating the same advice to our female readers: if you want to woo a man, just give him the scarcest commodity of the modern world – a compliment. The ladies nod in response. They tense their facial muscles and hiss something approving through their teeth, but they can never keep it up. Invariably they end up flinging mud and criticism at their beloved, and with passion at that. And then these fair ladies stroll through their respective cities and see a striking picture...


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