Someone’s Gotta Make Them
One of the interesting aspects of the past year is how unremarkable it was relative to previous periods in Chenmark’s history. Yes, our performance was solid, but there was not some heroic effort or singular achievement that made it so. The lived experience of running a small business is quite unglamorous and relies entirely on a group of people who, to use the gymnastics parlance, do the common uncommonly well. This year didn’t feel very different than any of the years that came before. We simply came to work and made the donuts.
Moving forward, our challenge, or as we like to say internally, our opportunity is to institutionalize an embrace of small business virtuosity as its own worthy pursuit, especially as our team expands. Daniel Chambliss describes this idea as the “mundanity of excellence” in his excellent essay of the same name, which presents a comprehensive review of elite swimmers and what makes them tick. In the piece, he describes an inversion of attitude when comparing “C” level swimmers to the best in the world. He notes:
“The very features of the sport that the ‘C’ swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5:30 A.M. practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”
Much of this sentiment applies to Chenmark. We are sometimes asked about our strategy for managing our way out of the aspects of small business operations that aren’t perceived as aspirational. After all, who wants to reconcile historical cash flow variances, shovel snow at 3am, update unit economics spreadsheets, or work a ticket booth on occasion? The not-so-secret answer is that we actually enjoy these aspects of our work, especially if we get to do them with people we like. So, our strategy for the future is less about avoidance and more about maintaining a rigorous emphasis on doing the little things right at scale. To close his essay, Chambliss relayed his experience sharing his research with a friend as follows:
“[The friend said] ‘You need to make these people more interesting. The analysis is nice, but except for the fact that these are good swimmers, there isn’t much else exciting to say about them as individuals.’ He was right, of course. What these athletes do was rather interesting, but the people themselves were only fast swimmers, who did the particular things one does to swim fast. It is all very mundane. When my friend said that they weren’t exciting, my best answer could only be, simply put: That’s the point.”
What a compliment it would be if, many years from now, an outside observer were to visit Chenmark and exclaim with just a hint of disappointment that we are “only great business operators, who do the particular things that one does to operate well.” The truth is that there isn’t an individual day that’s tremendously exciting at Chenmark. But we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the journey ahead of us. For we know that taken together, all those boring individual days will add up to something quite interesting indeed.
Have a great week,
Your Chenmark Team