Executive Retreats

March 25th, 2014, en route to Paris from London:

I am on the third day of an executive retreat with my business partners, Bil and George. We started out in the Earl’s Court district of London and are now en route to Paris via train.

En Route To Paris
This is not something we have ever done before. The plan was to seek out opportunities for meeting potential clients, partners and employees the week after attending NSConference. We also made a point of visiting with our UK team while we were doing business in London:

Black Pixel UK

At one point, while we were talking about it, and wondering whether or not to go, I said “Worst case scenario, we get time for an executive retreat along with a few meetings.”

I’d done one of these before, at the behest of Alex King and his friend Scott Sanders. That’d been a trip to a resort hotel outside of Phoenix, Arizona, and had been an incredibly productive time for all of us.

This time, it’s a little different.

At face value, I have been wracked with feelings of self-indulgent guilt. Yesterday we walked to the famous crossing featured on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. We’re staying in places that I’ve only dreamed of going before, and it costs money.

Abbey Road Crossing

In reality, all of us are totally exhausted.

One of us once proposed doing this at our home office in Seattle. It’s clear that this would never work in practice. Actual physical isolation has been a critical component to this exercise.


The first day we met, we each went around the table and stated our goals for the meeting. We quickly ended up with several pages of issues to discuss that we have never been able to satisfactorily resolve in the course of a regular work week.

Partial Excerpt

We’ve started trying to deal with some of these problems in the past, but most of them are in a class of extremely non-trivial cases that have inherent complications we’ve never been able to really get around. When we’ve tried to go behind closed doors at home things have always been cut short, just as we started to identify the underlying conundrums. There is always a client call, or a meeting, or some other pressing issue that has forced us to cut things short or have some critical member of the discussion drop out of the talks.

Now we’ve been able to sit down and really tear into the problems, dredge up the issues that are really blocking progress, and start working our way through them. Honestly, it’s been brutal at times.

Some of the challenges are logistical, so we have stopped and figured out how to handle them. Those are the simple ones.

Others are so tangled with issues that we’ve needed one LONG day to get agreement on the basics, then the next day to build on those basics and come up with a game plan to get the resolution we’ve sought for so long. We’ve also had to stop and and capture the results of those discussions and get them sent out to the appropriate people so that we can start executing on the new plans immediately.

The hardest issues have involved innate disagreements on how to proceed, or on priorities for the business (everyone has the right intent, but agreement on which problems have to be solved first can be hard). We all want the same things, really, but it’s been a real challenge to tease out what factors have prevented us from unanimous agreement on a topic. Once those issues are known and openly discussed, we’ve been able to find ways to address those issues so that we could move forward.


The exotic locations have been helpful, but there’s more to it than that. In addition to the opportunity for face time with local businesses, the 7 hour head start we’ve gotten each day has given us a brief window of overlap with the home office to sit in on our daily internal call for a bit and catch up with what’s going on at home.

The backdrop has also presented a welcome contrast to the difficulty of some of the discussions we’ve had. The conversations may be difficult, but hearing a trio of octogenarians grouse to each other, reflecting on casual sex versus matrimony in a local pub while we discuss internal affairs has made things a little easier to take.

It’s been brutal, and things have gotten heated. Yesterday, exhausted and still debating the risk of some of the things we’re planning, a matron at one pub threw her arms around me and said “I don’t know what you boys are fighting about dearie, but I hope you work it out. You all look like sweet lads.” We all felt terrible, took deep breaths, and tried starting again.

We did work it out, and I love my co-founders. Even when we’re tired and having a hard time.


…After I’d wrote the sections above, we arrived in Paris, where we spent another three days.

On the hunt for food in Paris

I had assumed that things would wind down somewhat, but in fact, it only became more intense. Our conversations became longer, we’d talk to exhaustion, then try to find some place that an omnivore, a vegetarian, and a vegan could all get something to eat. We’d focus on the meal for a bit and then pick up the conversation again.

On the hunt for food AGAIN

The uninterrupted blocks of time I’d mentioned earlier were crucial, but the continuity was, too. There were some topics that started over breakfast, picked up again after lunch, and were still being talked out over beers at a local pub that night.

Since we’ve returned home, there has been strong agreement that the talks we had in London and Paris have been invaluable. The decisions we made on the trip will save the company several times the cost of the trip each month, and we’ve set a course that we believe will strengthen the business and our own relationships.

And we’ll always have Paris.

The Louvre

Shining a flashlight at the sun

Although I miss Steve Jobs tremendously, I think he achieved what he needed to do, in the sense that he undisputedly established that making something great is a viable business model, and he established what I believe is a sustainable design culture, where people believe that good design is important, and that it is possible, and even superior, to have a business model that is predicated on great design and making great things, as opposed to having some kind of short-term gain on the cheap.

One of the things that occurred to me was that, while Steve Jobs was alive, he embodied and personified that design sensibility so effectively that, although people could be said to subscribe to the same ideals, and to be followers of it, it was almost intimidating to imply that you were a source of that.

I experienced the same thing with my late grandfather, who was really, really assertive (I used to refer to him as “Il Duce”). When he was alive, there was no point to being that way, it was just ineffective. There was no reason to do it when he embodied those characteristics in our family. If there was a problem, he’d be on top of it. Really, it was easier to just try to differentiate yourself instead of trying to embody those characteristics yourself.

Once my grandfather passed away, I missed that about him. I came to realize that I shared a real connection with him, and that all my life, there’d been no point in being like him, because trying to do so with him around was like shining a flashlight at the sun – it just didn’t make any difference.

Now, I’ve come to realize that somebody needs to keep that spirit alive – somebody needs to be the protector of the family and make sure that things work out, and that people are alright. And so I decided to step up to the plate and embrace those qualities in myself instead of suppressing them, and ended up really coming into my own within our family.

I think it’s really the same thing with Steve Jobs. In a world with Steve, a lot of times I’d hear “Who the hell do you think you are, Steve Jobs?” and the answer was, “No, of course not.”

Steve left his stamp on all of us, in the sense that we are loyal to the ideals that Steve put forth, and now we’re free to express them ourselves, and be a voice for those things in the world, as opposed to being me-toos. He’s seeded the industry with people that have reached the point where they are fiercely defensive of these ideals. This is why Apple is going to continue to do well: because Steve left a culture there that really embodies these things. There are enough people there in various capacities to handle things like the business sense, and the strategic sense, and the design sensibilities.

But Steve’s work is done: he’s revolutionized multiple markets, and he has created an awareness and a culture that I don’t think is going to go away any time soon, because nobody wants to go back to the way things were before. He made something sustainable, and it’s not just the company, but its ideals. And I think that makes the world a better place.

So while I miss Steve, I think that now we are free to champion, really champion, the ideals that he put forth. And I think that instead of just one voice, now it will be many.

That sounds like a great world to be in.

Gratitude and Fury

Steve Jobs is dead. One of the top business minds of the last 150 years, as influential, world changing, and enterprising as Edison or Rockefeller, has now taken his place with them in history. I am really upset that he is gone.

I want to kick god in the nuts right now.

I was going to try and say something about how he has influenced my life, but I think it’s probably easier to just include the letter that I wrote to Jobs on the day that he announced his retirement. Knowing what I did about him, I was certain that the move implied that the end was close at hand for him.


As a 42-year-old business owner, and developer, who has felt your influence almost my entire life, I would like to say “Thank you.”

Thank you for the Apple ]['s that were available in my junior high computer lab, that sparked my imagination and made me immediately realize that I wanted computers and technology to be a part of my life.

Thank you for defining the very industry in which we work. Thank you for the Mac, and thank you for creating NeXT, which blew me away in college.

Thank you for your triumphant return to Apple, and for bringing such vitality back into it.

Thank you for being such a titanic influence and inspiration when I struck out on my own and started my own businesses.

Thank you for refusing to accept mediocrity, and your iconoclastic victory over the carriers and smart phone vendors that were unwilling to make the deep investments and sweeping changes necessary to really make something great.

Thank you for dragging the world, kicking and screaming, into the future we were all promised by science fiction as kids, with beautiful computers, really usable flat screen computers, and video calls.

Finally, thank you for your body of work as a businessman and CEO. Your history is the richest, most insightful, and inspiring example of great leadership of our day, and very likely the greatest in history.

Thank you for really insisting on the best, and demonstrating that with hard work and good people, the best is possible.

I regret that I was never able to meet you, but I do not believe that a man of your caliber really would have benefited much from the introduction in any case.

I wish you peace, comfort, and happiness. You are my hero.

-Daniel Pasco, CEO

Black Pixel

The dent Jobs made in the universe is immeasurable, particularly once he started eyeballing the tablet and smartphone markets. No other company, and none of the carriers, were willing to do what it took to make this happen.

Jobs constantly reinvented himself: first during the Apple ][ era, then with the Macintosh, then at NeXT, then upon his return to Apple, then with the outrageous sprint of industriousness that produced the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, and the Macbook Air.

What was unbearably tragic about Steve was that his period of greatest triumph was also marked by his struggles with the ravages of cancer and declining health. It seems so grossly unjust that the most powerful and important person in our industry would have his incredible career cut short, ultimately betrayed by a once-healthy body that could no longer sustain him.

Some people have wondered what Jobs could have done with another 20 years of life. I don't know. I am certain that Jobs realized he had a finite amount of time left to accomplish some of the things he'd wanted to see happen. I think the clock started running after his first diagnosis and surgery: the last five years pretty much shout "this is a man checking off his life goals and pushing his company hard to get his unfinished affairs in order."

This, to me, was the point at which Jobs made his biggest dent: the pace with which Apple produced and refined their hardware and software over the last five years was absolutely unprecedented.

I wish Steve was still alive. I am certain that there are others like him out in the world, but I don't know if anyone with his unique blend of skills will ever meet a catalytic Woz to get the ball rolling. And, although his immediate successes were huge, it still took three separate times at the helm of several companies for Jobs to become the recognized giant he would ultimately be. Practically speaking, it just doesn't seem likely to happen again in the next 50 years.

Thank you for everything, Steve. I am so sorry your time was cut short, but god damn, your candle burned bright.

The House Dog and the Wolf – Indie In A Nutshell

From Aesop’s Fables – this pretty much nails everything about being indie to me. It doesn’t mean that you have to be starving, but it does mean that your prosperity is in your own hands.

The moon was shining very bright one night when a lean, half-starved wolf, whose ribs were almost sticking through his skin, chanced to meet a plump, well-fed house dog. After the first compliments had been passed between them, the wolf inquired:

How is it, cousin dog, that you look so sleek and contented? Try as I may I can barely find enough food to keep me from starvation.

Alas, cousin wolf, said the house dog, you lead too irregular a life. Why do you not work as steadily as I do?

I would gladly work steadily if I could get a place, said the wolf.

That’s easy, replied the dog. Come with me to my master’s house and help me keep the thieves away at night.

Gladly, said the wolf, for as I am living in the woods I am having a sorry time of it. There is nothing like a roof over one’s head and a bellyful of victuals always at hand.

Follow me. said the dog.

While they were trotting along together the wolf spied a mark on the dog’s neck. Out of curiosity he could not forbear asking what had caused it.

Oh, that’s nothing much, replied the dog. Perhaps my collar was a little tight, the collar to which my chain is fastened.

Chain! cried the wolf in surprise. You don’t mean to tell me that you are not free to rove where you please?

Why, not exactly, said the dog, somewhat shamefacedly. You see, my master thinks I am a bit fierce, and ties me up in the daytime. But he lets me run free at night. It is really very convenient for everybody. I get plenty of sleep during the day so that I can watch better at night. I really am a great favorite at the house. The master feeds me off his own plate, and the servants are continually offering me handouts from the kitchen. But wait, where are you going?

As the wolf started back toward the forest he said Good night to you my poor friend, you are welcome to your dainties – and your chains. As for me, I prefer my freedom to your fat.

Moral: Lean freedom is better than fat slavery.

Press On

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race

-Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States

Oft-quoted to me by my stepfather, John Mattila. Probably the best advice anyone has ever given me.