Wednesday, November 5, 2008

From a Wrench to a Wiki

One day (maybe, you’ve had one of those days) Pierre decided enough was enough.

50-plus hours a week with his head stuck underneath someone else’s hood was getting to be more than he could stomach. The work itself wasn’t the problem. Brake jobs, ball joints, rack & pinion, carburetors, transmissions were a breeze. But life as a 25-year old mechanic was starting to mean very little if it meant working his guts out to build someone else’s dream and not his own.

Six months after Pierre started swinging a wrench at Ralph’s Auto Repair, he let the boss know that someday he would like to own a piece of the business. Maybe take it over one day. And Ralph, thoroughly impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of his best employee – responded by saying “You keep sticking this out, and within five years, maybe eight, the whole thing could be yours”.

Five years later, Pierre decided to follow up with his boss on that promise.

“Well to tell you the truth, Pierre, I can’t see that happening for another five years or so, maybe eight”.

To himself, Pierre muttered “It’ll be more like a dozen. Likely never”.

Deep down, he knew the only answer that made sense.

It was time to trade in his wrench. But for what?

At that moment, Pierre decided to follow what his “gut” was saying when it comes to owning a business. The same instincts that served him well when, as a youngster, he purchased a box of unwanted Olympic souvenir pins for 20 bucks and sold them for a profit of about $500 at a local flea market. A return on investment of about 2500% generated by an 8-year old who still liked to watch the occasional episode of Sesame Street.

Growing up, Pierre had been intrigued by the world of real estate. He admired his Dad, who owned several rental properties, always generating positive cash flow while paying down mortgages. In fact, Pierre followed in Victor’s footsteps, buying his first rental property at the age of 19.

He started wondering and dreaming.

“Maybe I could turn this hobby into a full time business and become a contractor specializing in new home construction. But find a way to do it differently. Not like all the others”.

So, Martell Home Builders was about to be launched as a full-time venture with little more than high hopes and a gut feeling. But first there was some unfinished business that needed taking care of.

When Pierre walked through the service bay to turn in his overalls and letter of resignation, Ralph was floored. And once the deer in the headlight look faded, the boss looked his favorite employee square in the eye and with great sincerity told him, “You are truly, truly, truly making a big mistake. The biggest mistake of your life. You don’t know what you’re getting into, owning a business. It’s a lot harder than it looks”.

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who escaped the Nazis and taught at Harvard, defined an entrepreneur as a person who is willing and able to drive "creative destruction" across markets and industries. Simply, it means the process by which old ways of doing things are replaced by new ways. One of Schumpeter’s students, management guru and fellow Austrian, Peter Drucker states you can boil entrepreneurship down to one word - risk. The amount of willingness one has to put his or her career and financial security on the line for the sake of an idea. In Pierre’s first couple of months in business, he teetered on the edge of destruction, discovering first-hand what no dictionary definition or PhD could teach him about risk.

With two foundations in the ground, three people on payroll and suppliers bills piling up, I am literally robbing Pierre to pay Paul. Maxed out four credit cards, re-mortgaged my house. I’m stressed to the max, losing sleep, flirting with bankruptcy and starting to think maybe Ralph was right. I honestly thought these homes would just somehow sell on their own, and since they didn’t, I am learning some tough lessons and learning them fast”.
With the sheriff less than a week away, Pierre managed to keep the company alive by convincing younger brother, Moe to buy one of his first units. He made a decision to sacrifice all of the potential profit in the deal, securing enough cash to keep the wolves at bay and buy a little more time.

Pierre has used the time well.

Hit the fast-forward button.

Less than 12 months later, Martell Home Builders emerges as one of Canada’s most innovative home-building companies.

In terms of the home-building industry, there is nothing quite like MHB. (

Pierre’s brainchild features a web-enabled platform that drives a seamless, start-to-finish project management system, complete with timeline and fully interactive client log-in software. New home construction is guaranteed in four months or less with the “99-Day Construction Countdown”. Employing creative guerrilla marketing tactics and using FaceBook and other social media applications, Martell Home Builders has generated more than 80% of its sales privately, adding to its bottom-line by avoiding MLS commissions. They also turned heads at their first-ever trade show where Pierre’s booth was the only one recording live TV-type interviews with local celebrities and other exhibitors. Not only did more people stop by for a look but all of the interviews were posted on YouTube with the viral effect pushing the Martell Home Builders website on the front page of the Google rankings within ten days.

Clearly, Pierre is doing everything he can to turn an otherwise traditional industry on its ear and kick it in the ass. Some of the cool stuff that has been woven in to the “Martell Experience” includes:

The Client Log-in - A simple, web-based application that allows the customer, vendors and the MHB team to stay in the loop in terms of decisions, options, timelines, status. An on-line hub detailing the entire project - everything from building permits to architectural drawings and “Don’t Forget” lists.

Wireless Video - Since Pierre can’t drive around to all job sites and see if subs have showed up, he simply logs on and accesses a live camera that monitors each job site. He can look in real time and see what’s really going.

Wiki Operations Manual – What got you here won’t keep you here. Pierre understands business processes will always change so they need to be fluid. The day of printed off materials have disappeared like the dinosaur and this allows team members to design and implement systems that need to be in place, allowing MHB to keep their brand promise. For example, one of the project managers, upon hearing customer feedback on going a week without a phone after moving, was able to develop a “Top Ten List of Things to Think About Before You Move” and post it in the Wiki so everyone would automatically provide it as part of the New Customer Orientation process.

iPhones - Every MHB employee has one, pre-loaded with a 3-minute Martell Home Builder video posted on You Tube that shares the company’s “story”. The iPhone is also connected to all web applications, so when a client asks, “How is my house coming along”? any employee can access the latest on-line photos that monitor progress on a weekly-basis.

Google Docs - No more waiting to “get back to the office” before sending someone information from your desktop. This gives Pierre the ability to access documents in a secure manner from anywhere in the world and send that information to whoever needs it. Like having an on-line server in the clouds.

You Tube Videos - In an effort to better connect with key stakeholders, suppliers, partners etc, Pierre will deliver a message on video, post it on You Tube, and e-mail links to those he wants to reach.

Geo-Tagged Photos - Photos that monitor construction progress are geo-tagged with an MHB watermark. Newer cameras equipped with built-in GPS technology have the ability to drive search engine hits. Anyone searching for photos in the Moncton area automatically discovers branded, Martell Homebuilder photos.

There are also Twitter Updates, Delicisious Book-marks, a Blog and other technologies to keep a growing legion of construction fans seamlessly linked to everything Pierre is doing and thinking about. And the last time we checked, the MHB video has generated more than 1500 hits on YouTube.

And the entire business model is now ready for duplication in markets across the country. The real-time operations manual that utilizes wiki technology to stay ahead of the curve epitomizes Pierre’s strategy to deal with a rapidly changing world and industry. Essentially, Martell Home Builders is a company that embraces the new Theory of Wikinomics and its principles of Openness, Peering, Sharing and Acting Globally. It’s a model that allows both customers and business partners to plug into the brand – while the rest of the world watches with growing admiration.

Pierre’s story has gone viral to the point where influential bloggers such as Jason Falls of Louisville, KY raved about what he has created with a compelling endorsement in the fall of 2008 at In Jason’s words, “I’ve never had a house built but have heard horror stories of project being tens of thousands of dollars over budget, months and months behind schedule and problem after problem with the contractor, permits and more. What defines Martell’s unique selling proposition is transparency. You’re going to know where he is at all times. You’re going to know what’s going on with your house at all times. Advertising, customer relations, vendor relations, public relations, website execution, social media and more are all by-products of the umbrella strategic approach to give the customer a home building and buying experience like no other. Whether intentional or not, Martell went through the strategic process of defining their audience, establishing their objectives, developing strategies to accomplish those objectives with the audience and then - after all that was established - decide the tools (on- and off-line) or mechanisms to execute the strategy”. Accolades such as these are what prompted the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce to sit up and take notice in October of 2008, as MHB captured top marketing honours at the annual GMCC business excellence awards.

Some people ask “How does he do it”?

How does an otherwise normal guy connect the desire for innovation to the motivation required to persist until the job gets done?

According to Pierre, any formula for entrepreneurial success can be boiled down to a single phrase; “Be willing to do whatever most people aren’t. There is a reason why only 5% of any population base controls about 95% of the money and that’s because those are the kind of people who will do all of the little pain-in-the-ass things that most people can’t be bothered doing”.

With the help of a web savvy, entrepreneurial older brother and other business mentors, Pierre also learned quickly to “stop trading time for money”. As he explains, “The key to business growth is leverage, leverage, leverage and you only learn that by surrounding yourself with other people who think that way and can teach you. My brother knew nothing about contracting per se, but he knew a ton of stuff about leverage, so each time something would come up about our business model, he would challenge existing assumptions and call bullshit. That’s one of the great things about learning from my brother and all of the books, seminars and people he and others in my circle have introduced me to. Once you learn not to accept status quo on anything and figure out how to stop trading time for money, the sky is the limit”.
Perhaps, Pierre’s “can do” characteristics are best captured in this fashion; brought you today by the “Number 4” and the letter “I”:

Imagination – The ability to sense early stages of opportunity.
Inspiration – Believing in and selling yourself that you can do it.
Initiative – Taking action; doing what others aren’t willing to do.
Implementation – Organizing systems designed to create and keep customers.

It’s tempting to want to trade your “wrench for a wiki” and make the shift from employee to entrepreneur. However, any decision to do so requires a mindset to be willing to do what most people would never dream of doing. Many who claim they want to own a business are really saying they want to own an already successful business. How many people do you know that possess the intestinal fortitude to roll the dice in the first place, are willing to do the thousands of hours of lonely, heavy lifting and endure the sweaty palms and sleepless nights at “gut check” time?.

One day, you may decide enough is enough and start giving considerable thought to building your own dream. Trade your wrench for a wiki. Or, perhaps you decide to get serious about finding ways to lift your existing business to entirely new levels.
But here are some questions that need mulling over.

Do you have the inner strength to trust your instincts and emotions, even in the absence of explicit knowledge and information?

Are you internally motivated to the point where you would be ready to sacrifice it all for the sake of an idea?

How willing are you to work, sweat, screw-up, learn and find creative solutions that exist in new technologies to be remarkable and knock competitors on their keesters?

Not too long ago, Pierre brought his truck back to Ralph’s shop for a tune-up. This time the former boss took him aside, looked him in the eye and again with great sincerity, said, “Pierre, I’m really proud of you”.

Someday, when Pierre is enjoying his well-deserved millions and relaxing on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean, people will say “Boy did he get lucky with that contracting business. Guess that kid was just in the right place at the right time”.

In the end, Ralph was right.

Going from a wrench to a wiki – and doing it in less than a year - is a helluva lot harder than it looks.

“Capitalism demands the best of every man and rewards him accordingly. It leaves every man free to go as far as his ability and ambition will carry him”


Lynn Casey said...

I find Pierre's story to be such an inspiration! It is suhc a comfort as an entrepreneur to know that I am not alone. Fifteen years ago, I met what I thought was the most incredible educator in the world.Immediately following her presentation, I introduced myself and told her that I thought she was amazing and my life goal was to be exactly like her. Little did I know, this lady would take this unbeleivable compliment as a threat. Over the next decade this woman became a human road block to every move I made. She went out of her way to make me miserable. One day, she stopped me in a stairwell at work and viciously told me to shut up and back off! I was shocked and confused. I was not a threat to this woman... all of the jobs were based on seniority where I worked.

I spent the next 15 years building my resume to prepare to become an educator in my institution. I was thrilled when the jobs finally opened up. Everything I had worked so hard for was about to come to fruition. Imagine my surpirse when this retired woman, who was my original inspiration, sat across from me in the interview with a smug look of satisfaction. I lost the next 2 jobs in education to people with years less seniority, who did not even meet the posted requirements. I had every posted requirement and then some!

I was devastated. Then angry. Then the hopelessness set in. I just spent 15 years of my career with my eye on a pie that I would never get a chance to eat! I couldn't stop crying...I dreaded waking up each day and going to work.

Well, as crazy as it sounds... Oprah looked right through the television and spoke directly to me on one of my darkest days. She quoted Oscar Wilde and said "the disappointments in life are to make you BETTER, not bitter." I immediately realized that I did not 'deserve' this job! I was never meant to be institutionalized. I was always a square peg in a round hole. I began to feel grateful that I never fit in. If the institutuion did not make me feel totally hopeless...I would never have had the courage to take the leap into the entrepreneurial world.

Three years ago, my friend and I passed in our locker keys and walked out the front doors...never to look back. We were told we were crazy. We were told that we would fail. We were told that our business was a stupid idea. Little did they know, every negative comment that flew our way just served as fuel our fire!

Now, we own an online continuing education company in healthcare. We have over 400 hours of online eductaion sold through 20 distribution channel partners throughout North American and the UK. I am an educator! Now I am teaching, mentoring, coaching, motivationally speaking and best of my dream!

" Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals"-unknown

dmartell said...

@lynn thanks for sharing!

@gair amazing read, well written - love it.

Razor said...

A nice success story. Here's to continued success and innovation for Pierre and Co.

Great job.