An entrepreneurial example of leading by example

In September, 2001, the company I co-founded, Submedia, was installing its first display in Atlanta for our first big launch. We anticipated a lot of press. Giving away part of how the story ends, we did get a lot of media attention.

New York Times reports on Submedia's launch
New York Times reports on Submedia’s launch

The night before launch was crazy — we had a few hours to finish installing the display, we had to prepare for the Fire Marshall’s inspection the morning before the launch, and we had national, Atlanta-based, and possibly some New York-based press scheduled to attend the launch. At the pace we had worked before, we’d need more than a few hours to finish.

Needless to say, we, nor anyone else, had ever installed or launched a commercial display like ours.

We had no idea if we could make it or not and our reputation was on the line. Well, we were going ot make our first impression on the world. Missing our launch wouldn’t help.

I went in the tunnel with the installation crew. I won’t go into details, but we had to work on about 300 boxes from the back of a truck on top of the subway tracks. We could work on two boxes at once, meaning 150 stops. Each box we had to do the same thing — unlock it, open it, put the printed media in it, close it, lock it, and verify we did all that right. Working at the pace we started at, we’d finish in about five hours and we had three or four to work in before we had to clear for commuter subways to start in the morning.

I noticed if I leaned as far as I could out the back of the truck, I could just reach the next box after the two we were working on. I couldn’t do all the work that box needed, but I could unlock the box and prepare it so the next stop would be faster.

At first the installation crew looked at me like a benign curiosity: “Cute, the guy from the company wants to help, but we can only work so fast, so what’s the point?”

But stop after stop, they saw me going at it. After a few stops they parked the truck a little farther down so I could work a little easier. After a few more stops someone else from the crew joined me in working on that third box. After a few more stops, the third box was getting as much attention as the first two boxes. We had picked up the pace by nearly 50% with no loss in quality.

I hadn’t asked anyone to work harder. I had only given my all. Somehow it became infectious.

Now that we were working faster, we realized we had a chance to finish everything that night, but barely. So we all started working faster. The lighthearted, blue-collar humor of the work crew turned to focus and anticipation at finishing in time. We realized we didn’t just want to finish, we wanted to drive the track past the display to see it working before the public did.

So we raced like crazy to finish. I think I can speak for the others on that truck that we anticipated the feeling of a job well done, above and beyond expectations, would feel better than the joking around but not really caring about what we were doing of just getting the job done.

In the end, we finished the display in time. Everybody felt great.

We calculated how long driving past the display would take and if we could get back to the track exit point within our time safety window. We did, but we’d have to drive fast. I’d never been in a truck on a subway track before this project, but I never dreamed of being on a truck hauling ass on a subway track at around 4am underneath Atlanta.

But there we were, hauling ass on a truck on subway tracks in Atlanta at 4am before regular trains started. We hauled ass back, seeing the display backward, and got off just in time. We saw the first train of the day go past — the first members of the public to see the new commercial display.

Amazingly, the display looked great. Independently the Fire Marshall rescheduled inspecting the display. We were going to make it.

I went back to the hotel room to sleep a few hours before the excitement we anticipated of the next day. I set my alarm for 8am. I think we scheduled the press event for 10am or 11am. That was September 11, 2001, so by an hour later events of the day changed our priorities away from launching that day, but that’s another story.

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