Success Can Be Learned

I learned how to succeed through failure.  Just as a toddler takes his/her first steps and stumbles to the ground, through trial and error, the child finally accomplishes the triumphant task of learning to walk.  My first company Insta-Call failed.  Through a challenging process of enlightenment, I made the conscious decision to assess and evaluate the failure of my company.  In so doing, I learned that failure is not an accident. It is the outcome of a series of poor decisions and choices.  Becoming successful is the direct result of a series of conscious decisions.  One is far more likely to succeed when the desired goal and the decisions taken resonate with one’s value system. The significance of purpose is an integral part of the decision-making process toward success.

 According to the Oxford dictionary success can be defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”  

Failure is the result of a series of poor decisions. Failure to recognize poor decision-making can be crippling for an individual or a company on their journey toward success.  Deciding to Succeed, details a methodology ensuring successful decision-making outcomes.  A unique framework is presented for making decisions effectively, efficiently and with integrity.  The reader will feel more confident about the decision-making process and in so-doing, the reader will also feel a heightened awareness of the possible pitfalls on the path to success.  The reader will learn the importance of surrounding him/herself with people who share the same value system, goals and methodology toward success.  The reader will discover, that with a sound support system, his/her successful reputation will be further enhanced.  The path to success requires diligence, passion and yes, even an element of luck.  The path to long-term success requires a conscious and consistent commitment to the process of decision-making.   That is to say, for continued, on-going success, one must commit to the constant vigilance and assessment of decisions while remaining open and honest to re-evaluation.

Achieving success begins with a conscious decision to commit fully to the process of succeeding.  There may be numerous road blocks along the way, regardless of a person’s devotion to task. Awareness of potential problems can be helpful but it is most important to develop keen problem-solving strategies while remaining focused on the goal of success and the purpose therein.  As you encounter problems and road blocks, it is necessary to re-evaluate and sometimes modify, the overall plan for success.  Remaining committed to your purpose and goal is vital while maintaining a certain flexibility in the execution of tasks.

This book provides a framework for any person committed to the task of creating success. The areas of success are boundless.  For example, one can be yearning for success in business, in politics or in his/her personal life.  Providing there is a clear purpose, providing there is constant maintenance of decision-making, and providing the individual is driven to achieve his/her goal, success will be attainable.   When the purpose for success is linked to one’s value system, when the goal is noble, a person’s opportunity for long-term success is that much greater due to the fact that one’s value system is an integral part of who he/she is, allowing the individual  to consistently behave in  a manner which is congruent with their value system.

At the time I began my second company Calian, in 1982, there were six other consultants attempting the same path toward success. Of the seven of us, only I became successful in building a substantial company.  Remarkably, each of my six competitors were sharp, capable and enthusiastic individuals, yet each of them made limiting choices.  One by one they fell by the wayside while Calian continued to grow with grace.  I realize now that my success in 1982 was a result of my earlier business failure with Insta-Call in 1979.  The difficult lessons learned would allow me to grow as an individual and a businessman, ultimately allowing me to achieve my goals toward success.

First Try

I started my first company, Insta-Call Ltd., in 1979.  Within the blink of an eye, I had lost everything that I had worked so diligently to build.  Insta-Call was an ill-conceived idea that was executed in a sloppy manner compounded with poor decision-making.  The result was total financial, emotional and personal failure. This personal disaster left me feeling depressed and isolated from my friends and family.  I felt little hope for the future. Eventually, the stress and depression was too overwhelming and I suffered a minor heart attack. It was arguably the most difficult period of my life.  However, I felt that I was at a crossroads in life and consequently, I felt compelled to re-evaluate my life on may levels.  I realized through this period of reflection that a rebuilding of my value system would be necessary in order for me to move forward in life and in business. I realized that in order to succeed in life and in business, the values which I respected must be present in all aspects of my life, and not just one area.   Through this personal assessment, I acknowledge my failure and attempted to discover why I had failed so miserably.

Second time lucky!

Two and a half years later, in 1982, I began my second company, Calian Technologies Ltd. with a total investment of thirty-five dollars. At it’s conception, Calian began as a one-person consulting company.  By the time I retired as CEO, February 2nd 2005, Calian was a publicly traded company with sales reaching $177 million dollars and profits, resulting in over $10 million dollars. The company employed over 2,000 people. Calian grew smoothly over twenty-three years. We moved forward with courage.   When mistakes were made, we assessed the situation and attempted to recover quickly.  Our purpose was to create a great company with enduring success.

The difference between the failure and success of the two companies can be attributed to the two and half year self-reflection and the acknowledgment of the need for a core value system from which all decisions would be based.  There was also formal research in the development of decision making strategies, business models and acid tests for ideas.  People were consulted and opportunities were examined.   During this process of evaluation, I had to answer a simple question: “How could someone as capable as I thought I was, fail so thoroughly?”  I discovered the answer lay in the absence of congruency between my value system and the execution of my business decisions.  I had met the enemy to my success; it was me!  The secret to success for any person trying to make a difference in the world, is to remain aware of one’s personal values and to execute decisions, in all aspects of life, that parallel this value system.

As I reflect on the old adage: “I have been down and I have been up, and up is definitely better.”   My subsequent success in business, has allowed me to  meet some outstanding people, shake hands with US Presidents and dine with Prime Ministers.  I have had the opportunity to travel as an official state visitor of Canada, I have been blessed by the Dali Lama, I have been honored as the Mayor of Ottawa, I have helped to raise two wonderful children and, I have be blessed in loving marriage.  With failure came the opportunity to learn.  While maintaining an open spirit for self-improvement and surrounding myself with people I respected and admired, I was able to evolve as human being and make effective, positive decisions that would lead to long-term success in all aspects of my life.

Misery Loves Company

Another person was failing along side me in 1979.  His political failure was high profile and witnessed by many Canadians. It was Christmas time, and a young Prime Minister, Joe Clark and I were experiencing different but horrible experiences at the Ottawa International Airport.  We were both about to fail.  Under other circumstances maybe we would have shared our stories over a cocktail, but we lived in two different worlds.

He was a 39-year-old, Prime Minister, starting the ill-fated 1979 Christmas election campaign.  I was a 29-year-old, risk taking entrepreneur about to watch my dreams crumble.  We were both at the airport on independent journeys.  Joe was boarding his campaign plane heading for electoral defeat and I, in my radio pager rental booth, waiting for my first and last customer.  Joe lost that election to a rejuvenated Pierre Trudeau. By March 3, 1980, Trudeau was sworn in as Prime Minister, and my business was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, only to tip completely, within the next few subsequent weeks.

After losing that Christmas election in early 1980, Joe stayed on as Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and, by all reports, did a solid job as Leader of the opposition. In 1983, Joe Clark decided to hold a conservative leadership convention after only receiving a 66% personal approval rating at the bi-annual convention. He lost to then, rising star,  Brian Mulroney, who upon becoming the leader of the opposition, went on to win a majority government in 1984. The ex-Prime Minister worked as a senior member of Mulroney’s cabinet until the Progressive Conservatives lost power in 1993. Joe dropped out of politics that year, and became a consultant and teacher, only to return once more, as the leader of the Conservative Party in 1998.

I found myself reflecting on Joe Clark’s failure to win re-election in 1979. In politics, mistakes are often directly linked to errors in judgment. These errors can be difficult to quantify.  Some would predict, that calling the leadership convention in 1983 was a mistake in judgment, and had he not, Joe Clark might have won the 1984 election.  Some would argue that misguided decisions led to his political failure.  I would suspect that at the time, Joe strongly felt that his judgment had been sound.  My failure on the other hand, left me with no option but to accept that every judgment I had made had been faulty.  This self-evaluation was difficult and humbling.  But it allowed for a personal transformation to take place and with time, I re-surfaced with a renewed sense of purpose and humility.

Whether Joe Clark viewed his choice as an error, or a necessity, has always been an intriguing political question.  Maureen McTeer elaborated on Clark’s decision, in her 2003 autobiography In My Own Name.  Mrs. McTeer argued that for her husband Joe, anything less than a 75% endorsement would not be enough to forge ahead.  Joe believed that he could beat his challengers. That mistake in judgment as evidenced by the outcome of the election, lead to his failure.  If it was not an error, it was an interesting conclusion to a set of facts that even raised the eyebrows of Charles, Prince of Wales on a State visit in 1987. At a State dinner the Prince of Wales asked Joe “why was 66% not enough? “Joe had made a decision and the consequences were costly.  If Joe Clark’s ambition was to be re-elected as Prime Minister, the timely decision he took to achieve this goal would regrettably, have to be determined as a mistake.

While the misguided judgments of Joe Clark, were known both nationally and internationally, my poor business choices were known only by my friends, family and a few professionals surrounding me at the time of my failed venture.  The failure of Insta-Call in 1979, was a textbook case, of a poor idea, executed with little forethought, or common business sense. Yet, without this failure, my humble awakening and opportunity for self-awareness would never have occurred.  I don’t believe success would have followed without the acknowledgement for the need for self-improvement, on every level.  That is to say, personal, spiritual and professional improvement was required in order for success to prevail.  My failure, as with any failure, is worth studying because upon it’s evaluation, one discovers the magnitude of poor judgement and harmful decisions.  If I had been cognizant of the importance of values in making choices, I am sure that the outcome of my demise would have been different.

The Insta-Call Ltd. experience 

I was 29 years old when I started my first company.  I had the cocky confidence and mis-placed assuredness that is often attributed with youth. I had tremendous imagination and as it turned out, very little common sense. These characteristics were an unfortunate combination. Through my failure, I would learn of the preventability of poor decision-making, the consequences of poor judgment and the fundamental need for humility in all aspects of life.

I was an ambitious dreamer.  My first goal was to create a nationwide radio paging company.  My second goal, was to become rich in the process!  I was certain that  I had a revolutionary solution to the lack of roaming service for pagers, cell phones and their users.  In 1979, unlike today, the radio frequencies that cell phones and pagers were derived from, were different in every city in Canada, and for that matter, in almost every city in the United States. Consequently,  roaming freely with the same cell phone or radio pager was impossible.

My solution to this problem seemed, at the time, quite ingenious.  I would establish a kiosk at every airport, train and bus station in Canada.  Here, the handing out and collecting of radio pagers and cell phones would be provided to all traveling business people interested in this innovative and practical business tool.  My traveling customers could pick up and hand in pagers and cell phones at their leisure for a single low rate of $4.50 per day. How could I lose? My very first booth, the beginning of a communications empire, was at the Ottawa International Airport. I was quite confident about the prospects of this new venture.  In fact, I was already dreaming of the color of my new Mercedes I was going to acquire as a result of this brilliant business opportunity. How could I lose?  The fact that I had no business experience nor did I have any factual information supporting my ingenious idea did not dampen my enthusiasm is any measurable way.

I was committed to the task.  I stood in that airport booth day in and day out for almost six months to prove to all, that I could not lose. After six months, I was stubborn if not smart, I had not rented a single pager to anyone, not even a friend! I became quite savvy at identifying travelers from the companies that had committed to using the service from Insta-Call.  When they saw my booth, they quickly moved to pick up their bags, without even glancing over in curiosity.  What was I doing wrong?  When I had pitched the pager concept to different corporations,  I was amazed at the positive response that management had shown to the idea of being able to track down their staff anywhere in the country, on a moments notice. Still nobody, and I mean nobody, approached the Insta-Call booth to rent a radio pager or cell phone .  And I was running out of money.

The ‘How can I lose?’ question slowly changed to ‘What was I thinking?’

The end of my brilliant venture was mercifully short.  A faceless executive approached my booth and asked to rent a pager. This was it!  My dreams of becoming a nationwide success story were finally coming true! I was in business! I was going to buy that shiny new blue Mercedes and my cottage was going to be magnificent!  As he walked away with the $300 pager, I held the $4.50 cash tightly in my hand thinking about the 40% gross margin I was making on that daily pager rental.  I had worked the math on this in many different ways and I firmly believed that with my first rental, the avalanche of success was upon me.  I was in a dreamland of contentment –  until the next day, when I asked myself:  “Where did that pager go?”

My first customer stole the pager!  I never saw him or that pager again and Insta-Call was closed within a few days. It was over and I was crushed.  My  new blue Mercedes along with my dreams of becoming rich and famous for the undertaking of a brilliant and innovative business venture, had vanished.

The postmortem questions were chilling.  Did I ask the wrong questions to the wrong people?  Should I have been asking the travelers: “When you are traveling, would you like to be contacted on a minutes notice by your boss?”  The answer I suspect, would not have been as encouraging.  As a smart technologist, why had the long-term solution to the problems of roaming not occurred to me?  Instead of investing in the development of the wireless network with common frequencies and more antenna towers, I was investing in wood to build booths.  And where were those supportive colleagues once I had lost the ability to pay them for their enthusiasm?  The questions and unfortunately the answers, all pointed back to me.  The consequence of my actions had been failure and the evidence was clear:  I was incapable of making wise and long-term decisions.  And, I obviously lacked fundamental knowledge about the paging and cell phone business.

Had I approached an existing pager company asking for their endorsement with the idea of opening up booths across the country, I would have received a polite no, as a response.  This response would have indicated that there was a definite weakness in my business theory and venture.  Years later, whenever I am asked for my advice on a new business opportunity,  I will often inquire if the promoter has attempted to sell the business idea to specific companies in the target industry.

My failure, as with most failures, was very difficult to digest.  The little that remained of my self-esteem, was in tatters. The reality of my foolishness had been rubbed in my face.  My car was impounded, my condo apartment was foreclosed and my wages were garnished. Not too long after this, I found myself in the Intensive Care Unit of the Queensway Carleton Hospital.  There, I listened to the words of warning from a young doctor, Dr. Ron Vexler, who expressed great concern about the punishing lifestyle that had resulted in a ‘ interesting’  heartbeat for a 29-year-old jogger. It is at this point that the process of self-evaluation began.  I was ashamed and humbled by my own carelessness.

So, in the darkness of bankruptcy and shame and with a newfound humility, I went about rebuilding the base of my value system.  In many ways I was a very lucky man.  I had a fundamental drive to succeed in business. I had discovered that my own pride and foolishness were the real obstacles to overcome if I wanted to achieve success. I had suffered a brutal financial and emotional beating. By declaring bankruptcy, I had lost my money, my health and my courage.  I felt degraded.  All hope and optimism was gone.  I kept asking myself a single crushing question; “How could someone as capable as I thought I was, fail so badly?  It was a time to understand what had gone wrong.  I was now ready to genuinely reflect with humility, upon the failed events of Insta-Call. I had some soul searching and self-evaluation to undertake.  And the blue Mercedes?  Well, it would have to wait.

I felt as though I was at a turning point in my life, a crossroads where self-evaluation and true introspection was required.  I believed that this was the time in my life where I had the opportunity to rebuild everything about myself.  And so, I spent the next twenty-eight months of my life examining every aspect of my failure with Insta-Call.  I realized that the heart ships that I had endured with bankruptcy and wage garnishment, the feelings of loss, humiliation and devastation were necessary evils for me to endure in order to honestly examine myself and my abilities as an entrepreneur with humility.  The opportunity to accept the truth was upon me. And the chance to ensure success in my next business venture was also present.  I worked tirelessly to consciously acknowledge my value system and I discovered the values that were important to me as a human being.  I finally came to the conclusion that my value system must be at the heart of every decision, and every action taken in life and in business.  Once a clear set of values was in place, I could create a business model for decision-making that both respected and reflected my values. I realized that in order for a business to achieve and maintain longterm success, it was paramount that a clear set of values must be at the foundation of all decisions and actions.

The trauma of personal failure opened the door to change and with that, a renewed sense of hope.  I had truly been altered by the beating of failure. I was the same person yet somehow quite different in my actions, attitudes and business wisdom. I had evolved.  I had a clear sense of “self” and what  was important to me.  I had purpose!

Experiencing success

“The elevator to success is broken, You’ll have to use the stairs…One step at a time.”  Anonymous.

Success is far easier to experience than failure.  One might even say that the path toward success is simple.  It is not complicated.  It requires a fundamental system of values from which a clear set of goals and decision-making framework is integrated.  Consistent, diligent work and continued honest assessment will eventually ensure success. My ideal of success in business was to create a company that enjoyed long-term success. I wanted a company that would contribute to society in a significant way.  I wanted a company that would create jobs and help make the world a more secure  place for all of us.  I was so focussed in my mission that I had not noticed that our company, Calian, was already on the path toward success and we were about to receive recognition for our efforts, at the Banff Television Festival.

The Banff Television Festival is the television counterpart of the Cannes Film Festival in France. Producers, network executives and financiers converge on this tiny jewel, in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.  This magnificent event is held once a year and allows producers and executives to mingle and search for the next big television opportunity, and Calian was there!  At the invitation and persuasion of Spar Aerospace, the leader of the Canadian Space Industry at the time, Calian was being sponsored as the Rockie Award for Science and Technology at the Banff Television Festival. Calian had been on a substantial roll after acquiring Miller Communications and SED Systems in 1988 and 1990 respectively, and we were now considered part of the Canadian technology scene. Our sales had quadrupled in 1991 to $28 million and the talk on the street was we would soon be going public.

It felt good to enjoy some of the perks of success. My (now former) wife Debbie and my five-year-old son Michael were vacationing with me. It was a relaxing and enjoyable time.  I was beginning to understand the significant role that fundamental values had played in Calian’s success. As one of the patrons of the festival, I was invited to the sponsors’ luncheon. At the time, I viewed this luncheon as a chore.  But as the events if the afternoon progressed, I realized that in fact, this occasion was becoming a  learning opportunity for me.  To my delight, the guest of honor at that year’s Rockie Awards was Walter Cronkite.  Also in attendance, as an honorary guest was Sir Peter Ustinov, two men I had admired for many years.  I realized that I was in the company of greatness.

Walter was receiving the Award of Excellence for exceptional work over an extended period of time. Sir Peter had also received this honor in 1988. I marveled as I reflected that Walter Cronkite had come in to my home every Sunday afternoon, as he did in many homes, in the late fifties and sixties with his afternoon weekly TV documentary called ‘The 20th Century.’  Sir Peter was nothing short of one of the premier actors of the century and Walter was a living legend!  It occurred to me that my wife, who was not in attendance, was going to miss the opportunity of a lifetime:  to sit and talk with greatness. The lunch quickly became relaxed and entertaining as these two old warhorses of the entertainment industry exchanged stories and graciously coaxed us into the conversation about our own tales and experiences. The talk and the wine flowed freely and, in what seemed like minutes, I had been a grateful part of three hours of history.

As the luncheon grew to a close, I referred to Walter’s success in broadcasting and asked him specifically about the values he held during his amazing career.  Walter’s answer was simple: “I kept a standard of personal values that people could trust and over the years, they did trust!”    Another key statement Walter made that day was that: “Success is more permanent when you achieve it without destroying your principals.”  I realized that great people can and do achieve greatness.  They are rewarded internally as well as externally. Walter and Sir Peter were sincere, gracious, genuine and giving of themselves that day. I felt both privileged and humbled to have shared and afternoon with two such wonderful individuals.

Later that evening, I was to present the Science Rockie Award immediately following a special presentation to Walter Cronkite by Sir Peter Ustinov. These two men entertained the crowd with gentle banter.  Sir Peter then, bestowed a lifetime achievement award to Walter Cronkite. Once this formality passed, the two “giants” of the stage were back stabbing fun at each other and kibitzing back and forth.  The hilarity and well-timed jabs and jokes had the entire audience in both awe and stitches.  It was two icons at their best and they received a standing ovation for their efforts.  I was enjoying myself thoroughly, when I realized that I would be called to the stage next to present the Science Rockie Award.  Yikes!  What an act to follow!  As Sir Peter and Walter exited the stage and I approached, Walter  looked at me and smiled with a twinkle in his eye.  He winked and said, “Good luck.”

I was all too aware that the audience had just bared witness to two of the greatest performers of the century and that they had performed magnificently!  I realized that no matter what I was going to say, I would sound like  a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  As I faced the 1,500 professional television entertainers, producers and directors, I decided to just come clean:  my admission of vulnerability got me a chuckle from the crowd. Yes, it pays to be honest!

One of the writers in the audience was planning a TV documentary on starting a business in Canada and had made a note of my name.  She sought me out and inquired my opinion.  “Mr. O’Brien, what was the biggest surprise you had in building Calian Technology from a one-person consulting company in 1982 to present?”  The fact that she had clearly done some research on my behalf, caught my attention however her long auburn hair and clear blue eyes were all she really needed. Perhaps it was this distraction, or maybe it was the glitz of the festival, that I found myself listening, as if a spectator, to my response. The latter surprised even me:  “How simple it was!”  I said in such a matter of fact way that I hoped my answer to her question did not appear arrogant.  “I was fortunate enough to make all of my big mistakes three years before I started Calian.  This allowed me to have a clearer approach to the creation and success of Calian.”

I went on to describe my models for choosing business ideas and then I spoke of the Four Values for making informed decisions. I explained why I thought most startup companies fail and why others prosper. I detailed a few critical acid tests for assessing new business ideas, successful business models and personality traits to be weary of when starting a small company. I buried her in a blizzard of ideas and thoughts about building  a long-term successful business in Canada.  At the end of my dissertation she smiled and repeated my opening statement: “How simple it was?” she asked. I explained once more, the necessity of making informed decisions and the fundamental need for these to be linked to one’s value system.  I added that growing and maintaing a successful business required diligent, conscientious work, energy and focus.  I expressed finally that for me personally, building a successful company in Canada was not a short term plan but “it was all about building a company that would last forever.”

“That sounds like very hard work!” she gasped.

 I smiled at her and said, “I said it was simple to succeed. I never said it was easy!”   

I have been blessed to have expressed both the lows of failure and the highs of success. I was fortunate to regain my health during the difficult times and I had the added advantage of youth.  I had set some pretty high goals for my second company, Calian.  I was going to take it public in an IPO within ten years and I was going to retire in thirty years. I planned to begin without any capital and maintain voting control until the company went public.  I would be rewarded for all my hard work with a generous salary and benefits. In hindsight, those goals were a tad lofty but I was a 33 years old entrepreneur with plenty to prove in 1982.

Calian began with an investment of $35 in August of 1982.  The company  grew quickly through organic sales growth and acquisition to reach $32 M in sales when it went public on the Toronto Stock exchange in September of 1993.  Today Calian Technologies has grown with sales achieving $225 million dollars and pays a healthy dividend of 5.8%. In August of 2012 after thirty years in business, I resigned from the Board.  Another dream accomplished, one goal at a time.

None of this success would have been possible without the failure of Insta-Call and the valuable lessons I learned as a result of spending two and a half years studying the mistakes I made.  I will attempt to share my knowledge and experience of the methods to success. However, it is vital, as in all learning scenarios, to maintain an honest, open spirit, free of ego and arrogance.  One must have the humility to examine their current situation with honesty and one must accept all accountability.  A mistake is only a true mistake if it is not corrected quickly and never repeated. Anything else, is just another learning experience.

A question I often asked during a job interview for a potential Calian employee, was “what is the biggest mistake you have ever made in your life?”   The reaction to this question often provided  deep insight into the employees value system values and philosophy in life. This simple question was my acid-test for discerning many things about a prospective employee. It allowed me to determine whether the person could be honest and humble enough to talk freely about their failures. With failure there is always the opportunity to learn and grow.  I wanted to surround myself with people that were not afraid to admit they could fall short of a plan but were willing to learn from the error and both rectify and better the situation.  As a contributing team player, making an error in judgment is always a possibility but attributing blame to another team member is unacceptable.  I was never uncomfortable using this line of questioning because it often led to enlightening if not surprising, results.

The mistakes I had made toward my journey to success enable me to learn many valuable lessons.  I applied these lessons to every aspect of the decision-making process with Calian.  Therefore, decisions I made with regards to hiring were also reflected the decision-making process I employed.  Those who could talk openly about their mistakes were far more likely to be considered for hiring. Those humble people, who understood failure, were the building blocks of Calian.  Without their openness, sincerity and humility Calian would not have blossomed into the continued success it remains today.  In Christianity, we are told hate the sin not the sinner.  In business, the forgiveness of an honest mistake is the first step to becoming an ethical businessperson. With this acceptance, inner peace ensues and one is able to grow much more freely.







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