Category: What I Learned

What I Learned from Cami Carreño

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,”every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. This post is the sixth in a series that highlight some of the awesome people I’ve had the privilege to learn from.

I learned Spanish from Cami Carreño.

When I came back to Chile in January, I could understand 90% of Spanish, but my speaking was a mess. I talked slow, my vocab was poor, I messed up all sorts of grammar. Many times I had things to say, but the conversation would pass me by as I was trying to formulate what I wanted to say. Sometimes I’d just think to myself “fuck it, it’s not worth bumbling through this sentence, I’m just not gonna bother.”

I came back to Chile in January looking for a job that forced me to speak Spanish and allowed me to learn about how business worked in other countries. Other people had tried to help me learn Spanish previously and some people were genuinely helpful, (thanks guys!). But the vast majority, while well intentioned, were terrible teachers.

Most people who tried to help would say some variation of “but Nate, it’s ser algo and estar algo! they’re different!”  both of which mean to be in English. They’d pronounce ser and estar slowly and with extra emphasis as if I’d be able to infer the different meanings if they were spoken slower and with more emphasis. Others would listen to my butchered accent and say, but why do you say “pedro de valdivia that way? it’s easier to say it with the correct accent like this!” and they’d say it over and over. Uhm yea, if it were easier for me to say it correctly, I’d sure as hell be doing it! These differences and pronunciations were self evident to native speakers, but not for me. It was like when my Dad tried to teach me to drive when I was 15. I couldn’t turn the car on. He’d forgotten to tell me to depress the clutch because it was second nature to him. He’d been driving for 35 years!

Others would tell me things like “I met this foreigner and she’s only been her for seven months and she speaks well, you should be able to do the same!” Thanks. Not helping. Others would just make the correct sound over and over, expecting me to be able to say it correctly. Didn’t help. So frustrating.

When I started my job, our bosses gave Cami the thankless job of correcting my blog posts, emails, tweets and helping me with my Spanish when I had questions. Cami is the type of person who who never makes spelling mistakes in emails and uses correct grammar and punctuation in tweets and text messages. Texts! Bad grammar and mangled Spanish seem to physically harm her. She’d noticeably cringe when I spoke poorly as if someone stuck her with a pin or insulted a family member.

She was incredible at finding examples and creating little rules that would help me learn. She also pointed out words that I said wrong that nobody else bothered to correct. I’d gone almost a year and a half saying “instantamente” instead of “instantáneamente” and nobody ever said a thing. I’d probably said it wrong 100s of times. Instead of just editing my work and sending me the corrected draft, we’d read through my drafts and I’d correct the mistakes myself with her help.

She’d come up with rules, and show me examples of what I was getting wrong. Things like “the H is silent at beginnings of words”  instead of just correcting me and leaving me in the dark as to why. There were rules about what words have accents and what ones don’t, order of words. And many many more. But the part that helped the most was her ability to put herself in my shoes.

I still have lots of  trouble with my accent. But Cami figured out that it was easiest to find sounds in English that were near the sounds in Spanish. So to correctly pronounce Juan, I’d say “who-on” in English a few times to get the right sounds, then keep being able to say it correctly. Or saying an English D to make the R sound. If I say “nadanja” for “naranja” it comes out perfectly and Spanish speakers think I’ve said the R correctly. It’s because the English D and Spanish R are similar mouth movements. Unfortunately there’s no similarity for the RR. So I’m still screwed there.

Through being forced to help me and the desire to work less if I made fewer errors, along with a severe aversion to poor grammar and a gift of teaching more geared toward little kids, Cami Carreño taught me Spanish. I still have a long way to go to truly fix all of my mistakes and be really fluent, but I’ve come a long way. A huge part of that progress is thanks to Cami.

What I Learned from My Mom

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,”every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. This post is the fifth in a series that highlight some of the awesome people I’ve had the privilege to learn from.

My Mom taught me that “laying blame” doesn’t fix a problem.

Whenever something went wrong or we were faced with a problem, my Mom’s favorite saying was “we’re not here to lay blame, we’re here to find a solution.” I’m not sure if that came from her parents or from her training as a lawyer who worked in the charged atmosphere of police and citizen disagreement hearings, but it was drummed into me as I was growing up. Instead of arguing over who had done what, we tried to come up with a solution. Many times it didn’t work. But just having that process in place meant that we all agreed we wanted a solution rather than to just arguing to be right. It’s a very important idea that’s served me really well. I think things through much more analytically because it doesn’t make sense to get angry about something that’s already happened. It is the past. Now its time to solve the problem and move forward.

When I was 20, we decided to redevelop our tickets and textbooks website over the summer before school started. We needed to be live by August 20th at the very latest because we made 40% of our revenue and had 80% of new sign ups from new freshmen in that first month when students first came on campus. Our developer promised us that it would be done by August 1st, but we kept running over. On the 20th, it wasn’t ready. On the 28th, we launched the new site. It had massive bugs. I got slammed by users who wanted to sell their tickets and buy textbooks. I was furious. It was clearly his fault, or so I thought. I took a step back, and put up the old site for another week while he finished the job. We hit our revenue and sign up targets. Looking back it was my fault for asking for too much and not staying more on top of the project. We stayed friends, worked together for the next four years and still stay in contact today. By using my Mom’s strategy, we got the solution we needed and moved forward.

When I was running Entrustet, we ran into a whole host of problems. One time I remember one of our employees screwed up a mass email to our list of attorneys. She accidentally hit send instead of send test. There were errors that made us look bad. Instead of screaming and yelling, we talked it over and worked with her to create a procedure to make sure it never happened again. The same thing happened when a competitor ripped off one of our blog posts, used our research and didn’t credit us. We were angry, but after calming down, we talked with them calmly, sorted out the situation and ended up partnering with them a few months later. By not laying blame, we gained a partner.

My Mom taught me that when I screw up with my friends or business, it doesn’t make sense to blame others. Take responsibility, apologize and go from there. Obviously I don’t get it right all the time, but that’s the goal. Her saying taught me that there’s no point in beating yourself up for past mistakes, the only thing that matters is dealing with the situation and moving forward. The past is in the past. It’s called that for a reason. It’s served me really well running my businesses, but also trying to live a good life.

But her saying doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fire someone who screws up, break up with someone who has wronged you, or rebuke your friends or family for something they’ve done. That can come with solving the problem. But you solve nothing by affixing blame first.  Her saying taught me that it makes more sense to go back later and do an inventory of what went wrong and take appropriate action as part of solving the problem.

My Mom taught me the concept of “we’re not here to lay blame.” It’s become one of the most important parts of my life and one of the concepts that have allowed me to be successful.

What I Learned from My Dad

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,”every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. This post is the fourth in a series that highlight some of the awesome people I’ve had the privilege to learn from.

My Dad taught me what really matters.

As far back as I can remember, I can remember my Dad saying “oh, don’t worry about that, it doesn’t really matter” or “just do it, nobody will mind.”  Those lines have served me really well from elementary school until to today running my own businesses and staying out of the cubicle. That credo has given me the freedom to pursue my own path, rather than feel the pressure to follow what most people deemed the “right” path.

I remember learning this lesson many times, both inside and outside the classroom. In first grade, I had to build a model Papua New Guinea hut. I had little to no art skills back then and my model was really ugly. As the due date approached, other classmates brought in their finished products. They looked really good. I was worried my diorama would look really bad and I’d get a bad grade and get embarrassed infront of my classmates.

My Dad looked at the project and told me “who cares what your model looks like, its kind of a stupid assignment. As long as you learn about the place and the people, you’re completing the assignment.” My parents gave me some national geographic magazines and encyclopedias that featured Papua New Guinea and read them with me. I made my model, it was ugly, but I learned a lot and got a decent grade. I learned that all I needed to do was learn about the subject matter, not make a perfect assignment.

In middle school I got marked down because of poor organization, messy handwriting and not showing my work on correctly answered math problems. I’d lose points even thought I had the right answers! I was indignant. My Dad always asked, are you getting the right answers? Are you learning? If the answer was yes, I was ok. Later in 8th grade, a teacher kept threatening to give me an F in a class to try to get me to behave. She lied and told me that university admissions departments were now looking at middle school grades. I knew it was a lie and when I got home, instead of trying to get me to behave better in school by confirming her threats, my Dad told me she was full of it. He told me to behave and then get good grades in high school because that’s what really mattered. That became the mantra.

Later, when I got to high school, I started to get better grades, but still wasn’t interested in complying with rules that I thought were stupid. During my freshman year, I took a class that was 40% tests, 30% homework, 20% final exam and 10% class participation. I had an A based on my tests, homework and final exam, but I didn’t participate in class. I just sat there. With a week left in the semester, the teacher told me that he reserved the right to fail any student if he didn’t pass every single area of the class and threatened me in front of the entire class. I came home fuming that it was unfair. My Dad told me he agreed, but that sometimes you have to deal with unreasonable or unfair people during your life. He told me to figure it out. Let them have their power, don’t let it bother you. I participated a few times and the teacher gave me an F+, a 50%, so that my grade went down from an A to a B+, but I passed. That was the only thing that mattered.

In college, my Dad told me to get good grades, but make sure to make friends and experience things. Take advantage of my opportunities outside of classes. Explore things that I was interested in, not just learning from books. I took that to heart, probably more than he expected. During my second senior year, I got hired by a startup to work in Chicago. I had to live there for two months during second semester. I was taking the last three classes I needed to graduate and I didn’t want to fall too far behind. Instead of giving up my job, I hired a roommate to attend classes and take notes for me. I came back for the tests and did just fine. I don’t think I could have ever done that if I my Dad hadn’t taught me what truly mattered.

Besides teaching me what mattered in the classroom, my Dad showed me that many times, protocols don’t matter all that much. When I was growing up, he would always say “just ask, they won’t mind” or “just do it, nobody will care.” Most of the time it was true and in the rare times where someone actually did mind, I realized that the consequences really weren’t much to be worried about. This lesson really served me well, especially as an entrepreneur. Nobody gives you anything you don’t ask for or take yourself.

My Dad taught me self confidence and not to be a perfectionist. He showed me that I should do things well, but not obsess over details or protocol. To not be afraid to fail or to be criticized. In the end, it doesn’t matter very much how others react, it matters if you are learning, enjoying yourself and doing the right things. I learned what really matters from my Dad.

What I Learned from Laurie Benson

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,”every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. This post is the third in a series that highlight some of the awesome people I’ve had the privilege to learn from.

Laurie Benson taught me the importance of giving everyone my full attention.

I met Laurie when I was a 23 year old second time senior at the University of Wisconsin. Jesse and I were invited to pitch Entrustet to Merlin Mentors, a group of successful business people who mentor startups in the Madison area. Laurie, who founded and ran Inacom Information Systems and grew it to over $80m in revenue and 150+ employees before it was acquired, was among the 12 or so potential mentors who we met that day in December 2008.

The first thing I noticed about Laurie was her eye contact, her nods, her acknowledgements of what we were saying. In contrast to some of the people in the meeting who were looking at papers, watching our powerpoint, checking their cell phones or taking notes, Laurie focused her full attention on us. At first, I just thought she was really interested in Entrustet, but after she joined our mentor team, I realized that Laurie gave everyone her full attention while she was listening.

It was a joy to present our progress each month to Laurie. She listened intently, looked us in the eye and when we were done, asked good questions. It was clear she was paying attention. One time I complimented her on her listening skills. She told me that giving someone her full attention was not only the right thing to do, but had helped her have success in business and in life. I decided to practice giving my full attention to as many people as I could when I spoke to them.

Giving your full attention to someone you are talking to shows respect to the speaker, but it also lets you really evaluate what the other person is talking about. You can show interest. Ask good questions. Really understand what they are talking about. You notice things. And when you’re speaking, other people are more likely to pay attention to you.

I noticed the difference fairly quickly. One time, I attended a dinner and got the chance to meet a very successful entrepreneur I really respected. I got lucky and he sat at my table after his speech.  Near the end of dinner, the entrepreneur was speaking to me and another entrepreneur. He was interested in working with us on one of his charity projects. I was using the active listening techniques that I learned from Laurie. The other entrepreneur, who was about my age, kept looking at his smart phone. He was taking notes and checking email. The next day, the successful entrepreneur called me up and hired me. He told me that he really appreciated the way I listened and asked good questions. Chalk one up for the Laurie Benson method!

As I got in the habit of really listening to people, I noticed things began to change. People remember me more often. They tell me I’m a good listener. They ask for my advice. They offer to make connections for me. My friends think I’m more interesting, even if I’m not talking. I notice things and see better opportunities for myself, my business and for other people.

Why? Because in 2012, giving someone your full attention stands out. We have a short attention span. We’re on our phones. Emailing. Texting. Facebooking. Tweeting. Taking electronic notes. People might be distracted, thinking about “pressing” concerns. Many people believe its not disrespectful to look at their phone when they are talking. Everyone does it, right? Wrong. It’s disrespectful and shows the person you’re talking to that whoever you’re texting is more important than they are. I really dislike it and notice when my friends or business contacts give me their full attention.

I’m grateful that Laurie Benson became one of my mentors. She’s been there for me through business and personal challenges and taught me a multitude of things. But the most important thing Laurie Benson taught me was the value of giving everyone my full attention.