benign familial tremor.

My product launch happened at a trade show in San Francisco, and if there was anything that could be a triumph and a nightmare at the same time, this was it.

The morning of the first day of the show, my company held a press conference.  I offered Fred the option of delivering the entire press conference, and he declined.  I told him, however, that he was obligated to stand up and speak at the conference, say a few words, and then make himself available for press interviews afterward.

I’ve never had a problem speaking in public.  I don’t have a whole lot of strengths, but that’s one of them – I can speak well to groups.  So when I walked into a full press conference room, this tiny little company in a sea of giant, electronics industry conglomerates, I wasn’t the least bit nervous.  Our publicist introduced me, and then I stood up and made my statement, spoke a little about why we were doing it and what the advantages were.  Then I took what seemed like a hundred questions from various people in the room.

The publicist then introduced Fred.  He stood up and stumbled up to the front of the room.  He had no notes prepared, no index cards, no talking points.  He began his statement by saying that I had convinced him that he needed to be in the retail business, and that his company had done just fine without being in the retail business up until that point.  However, I convinced him to try, and even though we’d probably get our lunch eaten by our competition, it was still worth trying.

He closed his remarks by saying “Smile.  Be happy.  Have fun.”  And then he winked at the people in attendance, and made a little pistol firing gesture at them with his fingers.

Nobody had any questions for him.

Immediately after the press conference, our publicist had scheduled an interview for me with one of the industry’s largest trade publications.  Fred had initially told me that he wanted no part of these interviews, but once he’d gotten his feet wet with his public remarks, he decided to change his mind.  So the interview would be with both of us.

With an opportunity to talk to the owner of a company, the interviewer immediately told Fred that she thought it was a great idea for us to get into the retail business.

“I don’t think it is,” Fred said.

She looked at him, flummoxed.

“I don’t know what it is,” he continued.  “It’s costing me a shitload of money, that’s one thing I know.  But I don’t know if this will work or not.  Does the industry need us?  I don’t think so.  Could we get along just fine the way we did before Al got here?  I’m sure we’d be just fine.”

I had to lean my hand against my jaw to keep it from hitting the table in front of me.  He was actually using press interviews to threaten me, I thought.  I was working for George Steinbrenner.

The interview ended without my being asked a single question about the product line.  It was all of fifteen minutes long.  Afterward, Fred looked at me and said “Well, I think that went pretty well, don’t you?”

“No,” I said, “No, it didn’t go well at all.  They didn’t ask us any questions about our brand new product line.  Once you said you didn’t think it was a good idea to do it, the publication isn’t likely to want to run a story about it.”

“I didn’t say that,” he said.

“You did.”

I got up and walked away.  I had some time to kill before the next interview, so I went and tracked down our publicist and told her what had happened.  She went and talked to him, and when she came back, all she would say is “He’s an asshole.”

Thankfully, he declined to be present for the rest of the interviews, which went on all day.

That night, we had a dinner party for our sales reps.  Rather than rent a hotel room, I had rented a suite, so that we could entertain guests during the show.  It was Fred’s idea (a good one, mind you) to have a get together for our sales reps, to kick off the new product line.  So we did.

Almost immediately, Fred insisted that I sit down and play the piano.  And thus I became the trained monkey, playing piano at our dinner party, rather than making myself available for my sales team.  Any time I stopped playing, Fred would yell something in my direction.  To keep him from yelling, I stayed at the piano and played all night.

Day Two was as bad as Day One.  I had a meeting with a company that was interested in buying our product in bulk.  They had been in the business of bringing product in from overseas, but they were getting burned on poor quality, and were considering bringing product in from an American vendor.  Seeing as there were only two American vendors of our product, we had a good shot at getting the business.

The meeting included me, our engineer Danny, Fred, the other company’s VP of Sales, the other company’s VP of Purchasing, and the other company’s engineer.

I shake.  I have a neurological condition that has been diagnosed as something called “benign familial tremor.”  Essentially, that’s medical terminology for “your hands shake, and we don’t really know why.”

There is a litany of medication that I could take for it, but none of it is guaranteed to work.  As I’m not thrilled with the idea of taking medication every day, I simply do without.  The only effects of this is an annoying shake – more prevalent with my left hand than my right hand, and usually not noticeable.  You wouldn’t notice it unless you looked at me really closely, as it doesn’t really effect anything about me other than my ability to make very precise, steady movements with my hands.

In other words, I can go bowling, drink a beer, throw a baseball, play a musical instrument, or pick my nose just like everyone else.  I cannot thread a needle, eat soup, open and close the clasp on a necklace, or carry a full cup of coffee across a room (a cup that’s two-thirds full is just fine; it’s the physical act of doing something precise that makes me shake more visibly).

When we began our meeting, I opened with some words describing why our company was the right choice, and what we could do to make their life easier.  When I was done, I could see that I had all their attention.

Then, their buyer said “The problem I have with your product is that it’s just too expensive.”

“Well,” I said, “It’s a quality product.  You pay for quality, and you pay for ‘Made in the USA’.”

“But your product doesn’t test out any better than the stuff we’re bringing in from Asia.  It’s 20% more expensive, and yet it doesn’t work any better.”

“Of course it works better,” Fred said.  The room got quiet.  “The problem is, you guys don’t know how to test it properly.”

Their engineer stiffened visibly.  “Yes we do,” he said.  “I do it myself.”

Bear with me,” said Fred.  “But you don’t know what you’re doing.”

My mind began to swim.  And Fred and the engineer actually got into an argument – a yelling argument – about whether or not they knew how to test batteries properly.

Finally, their VP of sales said “Okay, I’ve heard enough.  I don’t need to listen to this anymore.”

“Oh, but if you knew what was good for you, you would listen,” said Fred.  “I’m trying to teach you something.”

“You’re trying to teach me something I don’t want to learn,” he said.  “I think it’s time for you to leave now.”

And with that, they kicked us out of their suite.

When we got to the elevator, Fred said “What an asshole.  I wouldn’t sell my product to them if they wanted to buy it.”

I stared at him.  “Okay,” I said in measured tones.  “But don’t come to me and tell me I’m not bringing in the revenue.  That was probably between two and three million dollars that we just blew.”

A few hours later, my phone rang.  It was the VP of Sales from the other company, calling to invite me to dinner.

I went, thinking I might still have a chance to save the deal.  Instead, I got offered a job.

The dinner was the VP of Sales, the owner of the company, the head engineer, and another two or three salespeople.  When we sat down, I apologized to everyone for the poor tone of our last meeting.

“I felt really bad for you,” the VP of Sales explained.  “I could see how hard you were trying to hold everything together.  I could also see how nervous you were.  You were shaking.”

I started laughing.  “Oh!  No!  I wasn’t shaking because I was nervous.  I was shaking because I have a neurological disorder that makes me shake.”  I showed him my shaky hands.  He laughed.

“We want you to be our National Sales Manager,” he said.  “We’ll pay you $65,000 a year, plus commissions.”

Sixty-five thousand dollars. That was a twenty thousand dollar raise.  Plus commissions.

“How much travel?” I asked.

“Fifty percent.  Nationally.  Two trips a year to Asia.”

My heart sank.  That was way too many airplanes for me.  I told them I’d think it over, talk about it with my wife.  I also told them I couldn’t possibly do anything any time soon, as I had a brand-new product line to launch, and I couldn’t just leave.  They understood that.  They told me to take my time, get back to them when I could.

It didn’t matter, I already knew the answer was going to be no.

~ by Al on November 20, 2009.

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