You need to read less and think more!

This blog is about getting stoked and getting worthwhile things done. There is a sea of useless information bombarding you, and this is a desert island where you beach your boat and build a hut. There are also some clever little construction tricks to be presented.



Sunday, January 14, 2018

Bad on paper / good in real-life

Every week, my passion for polished concrete flooring is tested. That is because this is a terrible business on paper:

Construction service businesses require lots of skilled people.
Service businesses are tricky to scale - if we suddenly increase sales 10X we have lots of new problems to solve. 
We provide customers with an inherently imperfect and unpredictable product.  
Almost no "barriers to entry": guys working out of their trucks with no idea what their real costs are compete with us on their way out of business. 

I can't see myself passionate about much else right now though. Why? Well again, people build homes and buildings, and the only 2 choices for flooring are element7concrete and future-garbage:
The coolest tile in the world, in 30 years looks like 1988 does now.
Wood is great if it never gets wet...sooner or later that will happen though. 
Carpet just gets gross. Every year, billions pounds of carpet gets put in US landfills alone.

On top of that, I love our "backwards" customer experience. Most things I buy are exciting at first, and then disappoint over time (for instance, my Apple Watch is totally dead as I write this). Instead, the imperfection and unpredictability sometimes makes for a rocky road at first, but the real goodness of the work shines over time. That's how we created our own niche and built a multi-million-dollar enterprise in a tiny town. 

The epitome of this may be emails like this one from earlier today:   
"Hi Cory,

You refinished our concrete floors about two years ago. I know we were pretty difficult clients (perfectionists!), but I have to admit we’ve been incredibly happy with our floors. We are new to home ownership and everything that comes along with it, so we’re learning as we go… To be honest, when we first bought our home - it was all very overwhelming and just a stressful time, so I would like to think we have mellowed out quite a bit since then :)

We aren’t in need of concrete work currently, but I was wondering if you might know any custom marble or wood vendors in the Austin area. Your approach to your work and dedication to your craft is quite incredible and completely set you apart from any other concrete vendors we spoke with at the time. I am hopeful there are other passionate craftsman in Austin - we’d like to make some custom furniture now, and will probably have other projects in the future as we continue to make changes around the home. Please let me know if you have any recommendations on any fronts!!

Thanks, and hope you’re having a good start to 2018!"


I want to point them in a great direction. I'm sure there are some strikingly good makers in ATX, but frankly I don't know a lot of guys outside of the hill country. If you know somebody remarkable, please comment below, or find us here on Facebook or @element_7 on Twitter. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

We purposefully built our facility in Granite Shoals to embody our values (high-end construction/low-end materials). Every inch of this place is made to either create great experiences for clients of the architects+builders we work with (gallery pod), line out artisans for great days  in the field (service pods), or to do the thinking work that leads to greater value creation (office pod). Our values (Safety, Raving Fans, Create Value, Uplift) were everywhere, so when I wanted something positive on the service pods, that old BDP song that I tattooed on my brain as a 8th-grade skateboarder came to mind (video linked here). 

There is a line in there that goes “There’s no defense agains common sense, competence, intelligence or excellence. / Intense. / But here’s the difference: KRS-ONE does not mean ignorance. / Try obedience / Magnificence…” When we put text over the service pods, we added "Represent" and eliminated "intelligence" since that can be a source of insecurity.  

The salient theme of my life is increasing human capital. I want to make the people around me better so badly its confounding at times. The cool part though is how I have been so fortunately placed at the intersection of ideas and physical work. All breakthroughs in thinking seem obvious when uncovered and add to "common sense".  

I love architects / ideas - actual AIA members and those that "get meta" and create systems in any arena (business - military - government - education - ministry - service -NGO - etc.). I also love physical work / artisans. To work between them is an honor and a supremely exciting role for me. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice - in practice there is. Improving best-practices with a uniquely complete combination of feedback from the field and understanding of the science behind the materials and processes is super-duper fun.


As Dan Walters says “So, what?”. So…thank you. Thank you for choosing a hand-made floor that may never wear out or go out of style. Thank you for transcending how society has conditioned you to be a consumer and despite imperfection and uncertainty and choosing element7concrete over future-garbage. Thank you for “getting it”. And right now, I thank you for reading the expanded explanation of why we are so stoked to stain and polish another foundation slab into an amazing floor. We all love you. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Finally got something for you:

I am insecure, so I spend $10,000s/year on professional development. I wake up at 4AM, work out, read, meditate, all that stuff - probably because I know I am a college dropout.  If I played team sports growing up, I now would feel lucky to not be “riding the bench”, and the nagging feeling that my team is behind would probably be more acute. Instead, I was a mediocre skateboarder in a time when it was not cool… at all.

So at these high-dollar business-training conventions, marketing mavens encourage cross selling: pimp out your relationships - sell everything you can, right?
(Buy KISS merch. here, sucker.)

That was never my heart but the logic makes sense: my passion led me to mastery (A man has to work to feed his family, and everything other than grinding, staining, scoring, and polishing concrete just felt like peddling garbage), and part of being an expert on residential polished concrete includes being able to answer “How should be clean these floors?”

So, we asked the masses. In 2014 we asked 100s of our clients about their best-practices for cleaning. Meanwhile, I bought all the fancy cleaners I could find on amazon.com (I have polished concrete in my home, of course). However, the cleaners I bought sucked, and the hands-down winners of our customer survey were “Fabuloso” and “Simple Green”. Both widely available at discount retailers. So we bowed out…for 3 years

We continued to grow modestly at 15%/year, and we now serve nearly 1000 customers each year. The "What should I clean with?" question pops up all the time, and frankly I think those asking are a little disappointed when I point them to Dollar General, Wal-Mart or whatever. Until a month ago.

I don’t know who I love more: the end-users of our floors or the builders of their homes. I am an early-adopter, and part of the fun of finding new/better  things is finding others that also "get it”. So, I truly love our customers. I’m also a do-er, though. Few people are known for GSD (getting stuff done) like builders. 

Maybe the best thing about builders is how void of BS our conversations tend to be. The beauty of construction is that it is (ideally) not at all political. The cleanest work at the best price wins - regardless of the weirdness of my hobbies or my inability to talk about football. So, when Graham Fuchs at Sierra Homes in Fredericksburg told me he had a killer mop for concrete floors I was very interested. 

So he came to my office with his wife Heidi to demo the mop, and it was the goods. Not only did it make my office floor cleaner and shinier than anything I could muster, it was guaranteed to disinfect without chemicals for years! It was truly a better mousetrap. 


Sorry it took me a month and a half to share about it here. Try it out. If you don’t think it is amazing, I will buy it back from you and do something surprisingly nice to make up for wasting your time. Here is a link: awesome mop system. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Setting genius free with deconstruction.

To be humble is not to think less of yourself. It is to think of yourself less. The default mindset for most of us seems to be ourselves as the center of the universe. It takes some life to knock that loose and to realize how big the world is compared to you. 

Humility is almost universally venerated. The greatest people you have met had a combination of excellence and humility. I am arguing here that excellence demands humility (though many lose their humility upon achieving excellence). 
Proof by contrapositive: Spose’s 2010 video for “I’m Awesome” linked here.

What’s all that got to do with craftwork and polishing concrete? 

Well, let’s start with saying “I was wrong.” about cap-polishing. Cap-polishing is where you polish concrete without grinding the creamy part on top off. I used to argue that it was the way-to-go because the “cap” was the prettiest, hardest part of well-finished concrete. So, expending the effort and tooling to grind it off only made sense if you were working for a nationwide account where they needed all the floors to look the same despite various qualities of concrete placement. I used to argue that high-end residential had better slabs to start with, so therefore we didn’t need to trouble ourselves with processing concrete with coarse abrasives as a first step. I was wrong.

I have come to find out slabs suitable for polishing without grinding only happen about 40% of the time for us anymore - and we frankly dominate the high-end residential market around us. That means that 3 times out of 5, following our default process would lead to a concrete floor that was not as good as it could be. For other polishing companies, I imagine that 40% is even lower (I clearly lack humility, too).

Luckily, our business model is one of decentralized decision making. We write detailed game-plans for our artisans to add to. We empower them to make it something they are proud of. And come to find out, more often than not, they are starting the process with tooling coarse enough to expose the fine aggregate of the concrete.

Upon being confronted by my misconception, I aggressively sought knowledge about the craft of polishing concrete…again. This is what got us to 15X what we were 11 years ago, but frankly I had gotten complacent. So I got back to 4-hour blocks of heavy reading and I discovered that some people had made a better mousetrap when I wasn’t looking. Better liquid compounds had been devised for wet polishing, and most importantly methodologies around profilometers had been devised. That is, people had figured out how to use meters that test scratch pattern to eliminate guess-work in concrete polishing. 

I remember in 2011 or so Jim McArdle (formerly of 3M) hipped me to the idea of RA and RRMS, (mathematical descriptions of scratch patterns as roughness average and roughness- root mean square). This made a ton of sense to me then, and I naively asked how hard it would be to make a meter to figure RA and RRMS. T-meters (the devices that measure scratch patterns) have actually been around for decades in manufacturing - the implementation in polished concrete just took some time.


American Poet Russ Rankin (lead singer of Good Riddance) once poignantly wrote “Beware the  opulence inherent in confusion.” Indeed. When standards are unclear, our egos and pride are free to grow unfettered. Herein lies the challenge of change. Of the 20 or so artisans that claim element7concrete their team, the best may not quickly abandon their little tricks in favor a scientific approach to this craft. Everyone needs to feel significant, and deconstructing one’s “genius” may leave that need exposed in a good craftsman. 

I’ve seen this impulse to convolute from “Industry experts” (people that know enough about decorative concrete to write but lack the heart to drive actual projects). If they can’t easily detach from their identity as a concrete guru, certainly the guys on my team that do nothing other than polish concrete are going to push back on a systematic approach - however better it may be. 

So once again, my job is psychological: getting proud workmen to abandon their bag of mysterious tricks for a proper decision tree. Thank God I am a masochist who thrives on such tasks. 


What magic do you do that you are afraid to deconstruct? Can you imagine looking at yourself nakedly after stripping away the mystery of your own genius? You know you are more than what you do, right?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The paradox of inspiration.

Our values at element7concrete have always been these 4 prioritized points:

  1. Stay safe.
  2. Make Raving Fans.
  3. Create Value.
  4. Uplift your teammates.
Inspiration is the fuel for all 4: (we didn't name the company as a reference to nitrogen). 
  • Injuries/accidents always follow moments of not being fully present.
  • It's hard to be a raving fan of the uninspired.
  • The default for most people is to extract value. To create value requires inspiration.
  • True inspiration uplifts those around you automatically. 
So, yeah. 
Inspiration. 
Sounds great - we all want that. 
How do we get it when we all think "I must be off track - I don't feel inspired in the slightest today". 

The trick seems to be to expect it and  to just grind.
Go in and work like a Marine in 1942 Guadalcanal knowing that the muse will come. Waiting for inspiration is like expecting a woman to be attracted to the intensity of your desperation. It doesn't work like that. At all. 

So stop reading and go build something that's hard to build. Nothing will be more terrible or more wonderful. We all love you very much. Good night.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The E-Myth Revisited

I've read 100s of books on business, and Michael Gerber's 1986 classic "The E-Myth" has been on my "Top 5" since I discovered it 9 years ago. Today I am painfully living it.

The title of that book comes from this idea: "Most businesses are started by entrepreneurs." is a myth. Most businesses are actually started by "technicians having an entrepreneurial seizure". Then they generally grow in nightmares for the technician. Why? Because business is much more than the work to provide the service. 

Since I digested the book, my work-life's ambition became to create systems to deliver world-class service and to create the ultimate career path for my teammates. I feel like I have failed miserably there. 

We have put out world-class work. But I can't say that's because of the systems I made. I frankly feel like a terrible failure when I look at how incomplete our systems are. By the Grace of God, we have attracted great people that can deliver good service despite our lack of orchestrated best practices, automated verification and feedback, etc. I have let them be "Easy Buttons" and have not stayed grinding like I should have though. 

What may be worse, is though I intended to put 100 people into business as franchisees, I have spawned 4 or so lousy little companies. That is, 5 guys responded to being fired by doing "side work" full time. This week 2 more will leave to "go do it on our own". The problem is, the only way one takes home more money without creating more value is to just not step up and do the right thing when things go wrong. Otherwise, I am pretty sure my top artisans actually take home more $/hr. than most owner-operators do. The 2 guys leaving this week made over $110,000 combined this year with 2-3 weeks paid time off, paid holidays, free uniforms, and gobs of other perks. I've gone into business out of my garage, and I can tell you it is not as good of a deal.

Sadly, this behavior pervades the decorative concrete industry. The vast majority of installers are guys working out of their garages and trucks that simple quit answering the phone when a customer is upset. Very few companies truly try to build a brand and put themselves in a position to never hide. 

Element7concrete is clearly the opposite. We supplanted the ugliest building with the best building  on the busiest highway in our town. We built a multi-million dollar enterprise in a town of 5000 (>60% of which live below the poverty line) without an advertising budget. We simply worked very hard to make raving fans of everyone we had a chance to serve. 

Now though, I find myself writing with a heavy heart because yet another fool is going to try to leverage our brand for his personal gain. He will doubtlessly try to steal the builders we have put him in front of. He will likely not carry insurance, not pay taxes properly, and not do anything to help set up owners of the floors he installs for sustained service. 

Worst of all, it is totally my fault. I have been theoretically working on the back-end systems of scalability for years now, but we are still missing key components. I have assembled a great "support team", but I have not held them accountable to their deliverables. I have not even delivered all of mine on time. Too many days I have let myself off the hook. I have been disciplined and excellent in many areas, but I have not pushed in key areas to drive this to victory. I have failed my team. 

The good news? I get another chance on Monday morning. I have the ability and the will to fix all of this. I will not let my team lose. I am way to grateful for everyone who has believed in this to back off at all. It is pure love that powers me through and I almost can't wait to get up and get after it. Thank you for reading. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

1+1=5 (with the right 1s)

2 metaphors leading to 1 point - Here is the first metaphor:
There are generally 2 very different kinds of carpenters in the world: framers and finish carpenters. One is not better than the other, but they are very different. Framers provide the skeleton for the house - so they feel their work is very important. Trim carpenters know that the quality of their work will register as the quality of the building - so they feel their work is very important. It is extremely rare to find a single person (let alone an whole company) that enjoys both and does both well. (Bob Berg is the only outlier I can think of right now.)

The point:
Concrete is similar: there are people that place concrete (commercial constructors call this "div.3") and they are important. There are people that overlay, stain, polish and coat concrete (commercial constructors call this "div.9") and they are important. Very rare is the person that enjoys and does both well. (Troy Lemon is the only outlier I can think of right now.)

The other metaphor:
Professional football started in 1890s in the US. It took 50 or 60 years before the players were anything other than completely interchangeable. That is, up until the 1940s or 1950s they were all pretty well-rounded athletes that played just about any position as well as the other. 60-70 years later, there are very clear physical characteristics of each position.There are 22 men on the field for any given play now, and it seems unlike that an "All-Pro" player of any one position could start in even 4 of the other positions. Most could not start in more than 1 other position.   

The point:
To build a house, you need many different types of craftsmen. To win a football game, you need a myriad of different types of athletes. To install outstanding architectural concrete, you need 2 separate teams. What makes us great at creating detailed patterns makes us bad at getting the concrete truck poured out quickly enough. What makes a person great at placing very flat concrete floors will make them bad at staining concrete. Sure, good craftsmen can learn anything. Someone really playing to their strengths can't be beat though. 

I can say all this humbly having started a "placement division" only to shut it down 18 months later. From our countertop work, we knew more about mix design, reinforcement, consolidation, and curing than any 3 placement contractors in our market put together. We were terrible at it though. We were just not playing to our strengths. Cabinet makers may know more about wood than framers, but that doesn't mean they should start framing. 

We have seen dozens (maybe hundreds by now) of floors butchered by "the concrete guy". We can always fix it. Sometimes it is so much more work to grind off what they did and start over it doesn't make sense to do it. Given our passion, it actually hurts our hearts to see great clients back away from concrete flooring because of the wrong team starting it.