1460 days ago...

Do you remember where you were? I do. I had just gotten off the phone with a friend of mine who works for the CDC in Washington, DC. It was a Friday afternoon, after lunch. The exact time escapes me, yet I remember there were buds on the trees, the grass was starting to grow and the hope of Spring was eternal.

She said, “We don’t really know much, but we know we have to make some hard decisions to shut things down. You might want to pack up some things and head up to the farm for a bit.”

The Weeks Leading Up

I flew to the Amazon HQ in Seattle. I toured 3 of their buildings and had two days of discussions with their team about Workplace Experience. That was the first time I’d ever seen the Amazon Go store concept or toured the Spheres. I experienced the Understory - a destination where visitors are invited to learn and be curious about the connections between biophilic art, technology, engineering, and design. I was in my element.

After three days in Seattle, I took Amtrak to Portland to check on a project we were delivering for a client in the Insurance industry. I was invited to one of the coolest watering holes I’ve ever been - the Multnomah Whisk{e}y Library. There were probably 1,000 bourbons to choose from. I had a rare Old Grandad that was Bottled in Bond. I remember because it fits both of my requirements - old and cheap. It was $8.

From Portland, I flew to St. Louis. Our largest client was based there and we had a full pitch-day planned to select an architect/design team for their proposed HQ. Orion Growth was hired as the owner’s rep so it was on us to make sure we stayed on time and task. The company we were representing is a conglomerate so we had representation across 11 different brands that were going to be co-habitating. Needless to say, it was a logistics challenge to get everyone in the room from all across the world.

If you’ve ever been in one of these situations, you know that each pitch can be wildly different. There were 5 firms - three were huge, one was medium/local, and one was Mom & Pop. Each firm had a 20-minute window to show us why they were the right match. I was mostly focused on the cadence and rhythm of the day while my Design and Project Delivery team was focused on the content of the presentation.

What happened next will stay with me forever.

The CEO of the largest brand (arguably the most influential occupier of the bunch) got up, excused himself, and answered his phone…..in the middle of the pitch. He was very apologetic on his way out, but that didn’t ease the nerves of the presenters. Not exactly sure what to do, I stopped the pitch - mid-sentence. This stakeholder was too important to miss any of the information that was being provided. We took a break and waited for him to finish his call.

I found him in the hall, pacing frantically. He was disturbed so I casually asked him if everything was okay. It wasn’t. He wasn’t. It turns out he had just received word from the CDC that the first positive Covid case was confirmed. It was a man in his mid-thirties from his Portland office. The same office I was just in the day before.

I was in the room where it happened.

That was it. That was the first day of the rest of my life. My flight home was diverted due to severe thunderstorms. We were grounded in Louisville. I was nervous I was exposed. We didn’t know anything about the virus. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do.

Fast forward.

What we thought would be a long weekend at the farm in March, turned into nearly 3 months. Throughout that time, I learned about how to check in on my employees. I learned how to have compassion for those who had lost loved ones. I shared anything I could with whomever needed it and I didn’t bill a single dollar of revenue. The world stopped. Income stopped. I turned off 27 projects - including the HQ in St. Louis. The consulting side of the business exploded but there was no way to CHARGE for the discussions I was having. There were no contracts for these discussions. Information was scarce and nobody had THIS type of experience. Salespeople tried to sell solutions.

One thing was clear, this wasn’t a trend - this was survival.

I learned that HugesNet satellite wasn’t enough to support modern work. I learned that fragile network configurations couldn’t handle 24+ edge devices. I learned that modern life and rural locations aren’t the same. I experienced, firsthand, the lack of critical infrastructure in remote locations. While we were in the safest place from the spread of the virus, we were the most disconnected from the information.

As far as the business side was concerned, we were toast. All of our eggs were in the office basket and there was no scenario whereby office development was in the future. We applied for and received both rounds of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. We advised against moving forward with leasing activity and we turned off the nozzle to millions of dollars in revenue.

Layoffs. Pivots. Research.

While this has most certainly been the most challenging 4 years of my entrepreneurial career, I wouldn’t change much. I got to spend 3 months with my family, disconnected in the woods. That time allowed me to contemplate where I was and question the direction I was going. It confirmed my passion for agriculture, technology, and education. It made me hyper-aware of the divide between those who are connected to information and those who aren’t. It gave me perspective on the world through the eyes of two children, 9 and 11, who just wanted answers to questions we didn’t know. I spent an entire season watching Winter give way to Spring. My days started and ended with walks in the woods. Sights, sounds, smells, and the organization of organisms. The cadence of crickets. The songs from the birds. Hope eternal.

So now we emerge.

What did we learn? Are we organizations reorganizing or are we assimilating to the known? Are we investing in infrastructure? Do we know the shortcomings of our agricultural systems, our education systems, and our technology? Have we studied and researched so we’re equipped to discuss the future or have we just reinvented our titles to reflect that we have? Do we aspire to go back to something or are we emboldened to explore the wonders of curiosity and innovation?

Our kids, my kids, watched this unfold in real-time. They watched the smartest, most trusted people in their lives not have the answers. Their parents, coaches, teachers, doctors, even the President of the United States struggled to inform the public on what to do. This entire generation is growing up questioning the status quo. That’s not upbringing, that’s situational awareness.

We’ve asked them what they want. We’ve heard their voices. They are concerned about society and they’re concerned about the Earth. They have a love-hate relationship with technology and they don’t understand the traditional path to occupation, let alone wealth and prosperity. Happiness hasn’t really come up.

History has taught us well; There are those who build the machines and those who work for those who built the machines. Our machine of the future looks very different - and it starts with mission-based work and a legacy mindset. It has to be built, it can’t be bought. Imagining it takes human energy, creativity, and a deep understanding of current state to achieve future state.

So what have we learned in the last 1460 days?

A lot.

The beat goes on - have you heard the new version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire?


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