FULL CIRCLE – THE SOCIAL ECHO SOUNDER
Is it really that time again? Time to turn the spotlight back on my (former) self once more? Fear not. Nothing much has changed here and I’m still the same person in the same place doing the same old thing – the only thing I know – building Windpilots. It’s a good ten years now since I started trying to condense my life’s experiences into a coherent stream of words on the screen and digest in a (somewhat) literary form some of the more psychologically taxing challenges that have come my way. It feels rather like therapy, or perhaps like the snake slowly shedding its skin to face the world unblemished all over again.
Refashioned into anecdotes and fables, these old, discarded skins have provided me with a rich vein of material for my blog. Not only does the process of distilling and formulating my thoughts on – at times quite difficult – moments from the past help me move on, but I enjoy reading the stories that emerge and I also enjoy the fact that you visitors to my blog apparently take pleasure in reading them too (at least I hope that’s why you stop by). Here I present for you, with no ulterior motives, an insight into the soul of a man who lives an authentic life on the straight and narrow, who stands by his beliefs and has managed to carve out a niche in the shark tank that is the marine business without ever compromising too much on his principles, a man who has time and understanding for everyone who gives him time and understanding in return – and very little time (and even less understanding) for those who do not. Respect matters in my life. Which brings us elegantly to the topic at hand.
It is no coincidence that the 16 years recounted here are relatively quick and smooth in the telling, because 16 years ago I started a new life, a life of partnership, of equality, of symbiosis and of mutual respect: after decades of jeopardy in the shoal waters of doomed relationships, a litany of misjudgements, misunderstandings, misplaced trust, mistaken priorities and reproach (with occasional moments of passion the only unifying element), my life’s ship reached deep water at last. A life shared was always the life for me – and for the last 16 years I’ve been living it with all canvas deployed. Why would I ever want to stop? Especially since even the thought of surrendering my beloved business, the venture into which I have put heart and soul for most of my days, threatens to unleash another round of social conflict. How does one put a price on ideals? How does one transfer ownership of principles? It would take a very different mindset to mine to welcome that battle!
Enough about the future though: I need to put the events of the last 16 years into words and complete my story of half a century in the wet and windy business. Not, I stress, out of any deluded conviction that there is some moral or universal truth in my tale but because, like a rising hiccup, the stuff will not allow itself to be suppressed any longer. It’s New Year’s Eve as I type this: what better day could there be for the job?
I’m a lover of life, someone driven by curiosity who, as sanguine as they come, approaches every new day with child-like wonder. I care about making people happy (or at least content) and have learned, as captain of my own ship, to embrace my responsibilities with open arms instead of seeking to blame my past or my genes for my own shortcomings. So far, so good. Apply these attributes to social interaction though and, in my very personal experience, you have a recipe for trouble – and not just in the mating game, where navigational errors (at least partially attributable to testosterone) have left me with painful bills to pay at the bank of life. I seem to have run headlong into this same wall time and again, mainly, I think, due to being too slow to pick up on social manoeuvring in progress and failing to account for the effects of envy and jealousy. My apprenticeship in understanding human behaviour has been a long and eventful one, all thanks to a miscalibrated social echo sounder!
Thanks to the efforts of the enchanting new pilot who came aboard those 16 years ago – a charismatic, strong and decidedly self-sufficient gem sprung from a challenging childhood in a completely dysfunctional family in which even a young girl was left to learn every lesson the hard way – I think I am now less susceptible to missing those tell-tale signs and more aware that where some of us see bonds of friendship, others see leverage. It has been an interesting experience to find myself starting to notice those little clues – the odd gesture, the offhand comment, the minor liberty taken – that suggest a measure of caution might be in order. I have had my social echo sounder retuned and refashioned as a firewall that makes a much better job of spotting the threat in false friends and keeping them far enough away to be harmless. Ultimately, nothing has done more to cure me of my erroneous understanding of the world than events in my second home, where what appears to be pure naked envy has unleashed countless insidious attacks upon us. Away damn’d digression, away I say!
FROM THE MARKET
Dealing with my customer the sailor is a sunny walk in the park by comparison, although even here it pays to be watchful: there are some cunning folk abroad on our waters and respect, reputation and money can all be lost without too much fuss if those of few scruples succeed in having everything their way unchallenged. Some people approach life as a contest, a chance to demonstrate their superiority; they feel there always needs to be a winner and they intend it to be them. What a trap this can be for the naive proprietor whose thinks only of the sale to be had and not of the greater consequences!
Creating trust can be a life’s work, but nothing compares to the rewards. Once real trust has been established, everything suddenly seems to look after itself: sailors keep on placing their orders for a nice big delivery from Hamburg and there is next to no quibbling over prices (and they all lived happily ever after). What I describe, of course, is the (approximate) situation of a 72-year old man who has devoted more or less his entire life to achieving just this. Who would ever want to give that up just because the hair is more salt than pepper these days and the bones have been known to creak now and again? The brain at least continues to function as normal and so too do the fingers – and not just on duty at the keyboard. I could almost forget my advance into older age were it not for a striking change in the spam I receive: where once the spammers stuck to offering me porn, now they are increasingly diversifying into stairlifts, hearing aids and adult incontinence products…
I am now happy to sit back and wait to hear from sailors in need of assistance, be it advice, parts or even something new for the transom. Unsolicited e-mails, Early Bird or Black Friday offers, ghost-written articles for publication and tricks with cookies have no place in my playbook. Why would I want to crank up sales when the business we have right now suits our two-person outfit perfectly? Why bring new potential sources of friction into our harmonious workplace? What if we hired new staff and they left the seat up (or even, heaven forbid, neglected to flush)?
My appetite for social experiences in the commercial world has been satiated for good (see previous blogs!). This talk of my social echo sounder being miscalibrated is just a silly excuse, a distraction to explain away my old tendency to accept at face value the messages fired my way by people I had no particular reason to trust instead of maintaining the healthy caution that might have helped me recognise their machinations in good time. The understanding has finally percolated through that the human race, anyway inclined to know-it-allism, turns all too quickly to diversionary tactics and confrontation – just like a rowing couple, be they (erstwhile) lovers or incandescent pre-schoolers on the rampage. Just allegations and excuses, on and on in an endless downward spiral. Years of expensive legal processes could have been avoided altogether with just a tiny bit more respect (or even a tiny bit more introspection). No more groundhog day! Really though, what use are contracts if you need a team of lawyers to enforce them and even then spend days or weeks on tenterhooks for fear the judge will fail to grasp the facts? Verbal contracts probably seem like a daft idea to many today, even though, as my grandfather made sure to impress upon me, they represent agreement in its purest form.
Experience never seems to come for free, but I feel I have been able to recoup at least some of my outlay from the enjoyment I’ve found transmogrifying the memory of my misadventures into humorous blog posts. It’s a bit like psychoanalysis I suppose, except that I have to supply my own couch and the principal measure of success is laughs (by which I mean page impressions – I have to assume you wouldn’t be reading this if it didn’t amuse you).
More difficult to process is the behaviour of the sharks in the German marine industry pond who make their living by monetarising information, a press pack who play by their own rules because of their apparent conviction (reality, in the form of circulation figures, suggests otherwise) that they play a vital role at the interface – or should that be bottleneck? – between suppliers and readers.
Not so long ago, one of our glossy sailing magazines went so far as to sell its readership out completely by nailing its colours to the mast of a once-proud but now ailing association that had apparently been acting contrary to the interests of its bluewater-sailor members for years. The association lost hundreds of members and the reputation of both it and the magazine took a huge and lasting hit in serious sailing circles. The story is compelling (I’ve published dozens of contributions on the subject for my German-language audience) and I can’t understand how anyone could feel anything but enormous sympathy for the victims. It was a mix of idealism and sympathy that drove me to sally forth into the battle for justice and the righting of past wrongs in this particular case. Going head-to-head with the forces of reaction delivered yet another “interesting” experience, one that I took care to process, condense and meticulously write down as insurance against the danger of forgetting. All of that because an editor in shark’s clothing was prepared to abandon any trace of integrity just to snap up a sailing association’s newsletter?
Having served time at the boat shows of the world on a good 220 occasions, I was not entirely disappointed when the changing face of air travel after the 9/11 attacks left me little choice but to cancel all eight US shows on my calendar. Then I gave up London and Paris too and by 2004 I was sufficiently rehabilitated to bid farewell even to the German shows (but not before seeing the Bluewater Seminars I used to present with Astrid and Wilhelm Greiff passed on to Bobby Schenk). The new approach slashed my business costs, especially as I now had my wife working alongside me and no longer needed to worry about outside employees (and their bathroom habits). I don’t mind admitting that productivity rocketed, which not only filled my wife (whose influence has left its mark on every single aspect of the business) with pride and confidence, but also ensured she had a clear conscience when topping up her wardrobe and lending a hand to people in need back where she comes from.
We have consolidated our production operations too, switching to a new foundry and optimising the permanent moulds used. Windpilot is efficient: with no overheads, no staff, nothing but direct marketing and the owners themselves busy at the coalface, it doesn’t get any leaner. The internet has made the world very simple for a provider of niche products, not least because of the excellent forum it provides for manufacturers to deliver and discuss the information discerning customers need. The Windpilot website became bilingual in 1997 and has been available in six languages since 2001. The blog launched in German and English in 2010. Who needs aeroplanes when, as I like to remind people, I am almost always no more than a mouse-click away?
What a wonderful magic carpet ride to be able to take care of my work from the sofa (in my bath robe perhaps) or from out on the water or wherever I happen to be and know there simply couldn’t be a better way.