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Relentless Pursuits: How Failure Can Actually Make Us Better

Real success comes from the ability to circumvent challenges and provide a team with a roadmap around barriers.

When bringing a new venture to market, some people look at all of the challenges that stand in their way instead of looking for the solutions that may be discovered on the road ahead. They beat themselves out of the race before they have a chance to succeed.

I just finished reading a book about business magnate (and much more) Elon Musk. Many of those interviewed characterize him as an unrelenting maniac that demands the impossible coupled with a curt and often callous temper. He has no patience for those that say, “It can’t’ be done” and expects everyone to have the same work ethic that he does. He works from dawn to dusk and is on the production floor at Tesla or SpaceX every weekend.

The Grind

As with all books, there are always takeaways. Before I get into it, let me assure you I am no rocket scientist and my own accomplishments certainly pale as compared in comparison to Musk’s achievements. But there are parallels. For instance, when “driving the Radial bus,” I would get up every day at 5 am, deal with the 200-plus emails awaiting in my inbox, and while driving to the office, spend this valuable time talking with engineers to discuss feature sets or help them work through challenges.

When I arrived at the office, the day would be filled with meetings with various departments, writing copy or proof-reading manuals, testing products, and depending on the urgency, putting out fires. I would always be the last person to leave yet made the effort to be home by 7 pm to spend some time with the family over dinner.

Most weekends I would be at my desk from early morning until my son’s soccer practice then, if it was nice outside, try to get some “Peter Time” by going for a hike in the hills, a bike ride, cut the lawn or play a tennis match. I’ve often touted the importance of what’s known as blue-sky time – where your mind is set free from the daily grind. This is when ideas for new products begin to take shape and solutions to circumvent barriers emerge.

Like Musk, I had no patience for mistakes. Back in the day, my boss at Fender used to take me aside and tell me to count to 10 before I exploded. The best thing I ever did was hire Mike Hill, our general manager and my right-hand person at Radial. He agreed to take on the position with the stipulation that he did all of the staff hiring. Mike surrounded Radial with great people and buffered my impatience when mistakes were made. In other words, he’s an excellent manager, but isn’t an entrepreneur.

When someone says that something couldn’t be done, Musk takes on the project in addition to his role as CEO. He delivers. I too have a relentless desire to make products as good as possible. How can you win if you deliver second best?

When I had an idea to develop a line of studio room kits to compete with Auralex, Mike tried to dissuade me because we didn’t have the resources to get it done. But instead of abandoning the project, I developed the whole thing in my basement at home and presented the Primacoustic brand complete with packaging concepts and marketing materials.

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Being an entrepreneur is a relentless and often thankless task. It often takes years to bring your dream to reality, and over this period, there’s a constant rolling with the waves, changing staff, the come and go of products, and in the end, the perception from the outside that you’re an overnight success.

The real success, however, comes from the ability to circumvent challenges and provide your team with a roadmap around barriers. This is coupled with the unyielding drive to set goals and achieve them. And guess what? You’re certain to fail in some instances.

Making It Happen

In the late 1990s, under the tutelage of Bryan Adams’ Warehouse studio designer Rob “Obvious” Vermeulen, we compared the Radial JDI direct box against several competitive models. One product surpassed the JDI, a custom-made active DI from studio designer John Vrtacic, renowned for his work at Little Mountain Studios (AC/DC, Metallica, Aerosmith).

Ron suggested we purchase the design from John and market it. The problem with this DI was that it required a 110-volt AC power connection – OK for studios, but for touring, I wanted it to work on 48-volt DC phantom power. In short, I was asking for the impossible.

In an effort to circumvent, I had the “brilliant” idea of incorporating rechargeable batteries into the box and have phantom power trickle-charge the battery pack while on stage, so we sourced lithium batteries from e-Moli-Energy, a manufacturer that happened to be about two miles up the road.

We had an amazing audio circuit, but our product design engineer of the day was unable to deliver on the power system. To get around the inability to trickle-charge the batteries, one had to connect the DI to an external DC power supply and charge it before every show. In honor of John Vrtacic, I called it the JDV.

Because this was the early days of lithium, the batteries would eventually encounter memory problems and we spent tons of money on replacing batteries for unhappy users. In an effort to drive down costs, we contacted e-Moli-Energy and asked if we could assemble the battery packs ourselves. They said no – lithium, if exposed to water, will blow up like a bomb.

This brings me back to Elon Musk. Remember reading about first-generation Tesla automobiles getting into accidents and then catching fire? Musk clearly stole my idea on rechargeable batteries (kidding!), only he applied it to cars.

And just like Musk, we failed to deliver in the early days but we stayed the course, found a more suitable design engineer, and although we abandoned the rechargeable battery idea, the JDV ended up being a favorite in studios around the globe.

On the other hand, Musk invested heavily in lithium battery technology, eventually making his own and developed ways to protect them from mishaps. He was not deterred by the failures encountered along the way. He now sells battery packs to Mercedes and Toyota, and essentially brought what was considered to be impossible to reality.

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