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.



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.  




Sunday, September 3, 2017

Using what we know at the Gulf Coast

I imagine there is a lot of funk to kill in the flooded homes along the Gulf Coast. I heard there was a lack of bleach. Use chlorinating tablets (trichloro-s-triazinetrione) instead. They are 90% stabilized chlorine, about $2/lb. at Wal-Mart or whatever, and have cyanuric acid to boot. Acid is good because it's hypochlorous acid one is really after. In pool maintenance for instance, 2 ppm free chlorine in a swimming pool with a pH of 7.2  is far more effective than 5ppm at 8.2.

Bleach is good for amateurs: at 5-6% sodium hypochlorite it is less likely to do something stupid. Pool supply stores sell "liquid chlorine" with is about twice as potent. But compared to tablets, the stuff is inefficient to truck into a disaster area and weak. Please be sure to were PPE when working with chemicals like this though: we use 3M masks with VOC cartridges. Here is a link for the facemask; here is a link for the cartidges. You can also get them at Sherwin Williams, maybe Home Depot or Lowes. The full-face masks are best because chlorinated water in the eye sucks, and many gaseous chemicals are absorbed through eyes.

For our crunchy friends, or applications that should not be bleached or treated with strong oxidizing agents, Borax (sodium tetraborate) is great. It is alkaline, ostensibly safe, and has no harmful fumes to mitigate with masks or whatever. You can find it in bulk for $0.60-$0.48/lb. and should be cut 16:1 with water to fight mold. That sounds like a better tack than schlepping bottles of bleach to the coast for sure.

Hope this helps. We have been hacking the chemistry of what's around us for over a decade to create floors from lowly foundation slabs. We commit a % of our gross profits to serving those in our community who can't help themselves, and we are excited to have a well-planned mission for this coming week. If you want to join us, but can't really afford a week without working for pay we have you covered. Call our office at 830-798-2717 or email cory@element7concrete.com for more information.





Wednesday, August 30, 2017

White Paper: Best Practices for Residential Concrete Flooring


Asking a better question
In 2008, I was at an decorative concrete convention and I posed this question to a chemical engineer: “If we were going to permanently colonize the moon, and we were planning flooring for our buildings with all we know now, what should we specify for maximum durability,
serviceability, and efficiency of installation?”. He was struck by the quality of that question, but had no good answer.

In the 8-9 years since, we have grown our company around 800% and we now install 500,000-1,000,000sf of stained+polished residential concrete flooring each year…based out of Granite Shoals, TX - population: 5000. Small-town Texans will generally tell you what you think (whether you want to hear it or not), so given those numbers, our positioning and focus, I can confidently say nobody can more frankly discuss the good and bad of residential concrete flooring than me. I even think I could answer my own moon question now.
Why concrete flooring in homes
  • It matches nearly everything:  Houses tend to change owners, and concrete is the most neutral backdrop for changing styles. That might be why it is so common in museums.
  • It doesn’t go out of style:  The first staining projects, done in the 1920’s still look great.  On the other hand, the best tile from 30 years ago...looks like 1986 now.  Like good design in general, concrete floors may continue to be relevant indefinitely.
  • It is cleaner:  When we tear out carpet, wood, even tile, it is gross.  The stuff that accumulates under floor covering is not something you want in your home.  On the other hand, when you clean a concrete floor, you are done.  No “deep cleaning” needed.  If you use with rugs to “warm it up” and absorb sound, they can be easily cleaned completely.  
  • It is the greenest thing to do:  Concrete is made from some of the world’s most abundant materials, it is super-durable, and it never goes out of style. By comparison, everything else is future-garbage.
Why concrete flooring too often becomes a nightmare
  • It is imperfect. A “perfect” concrete floor is like a Unicorn:  I can imagine it, but after a few thousand times of not finding one when diligently looking, I no longer hope to see one in person. Consumers are conditioned to expect “100% satisfaction or money back”. Since such a situation is highly unlikely, customer dissatisfaction becomes terribly common.   
  • It is unpredictable.  Customers don’t get to pick the imperfection they end up with. Furthermore, the color can vary from the sample / imagined result: we can control the general direction of the color and we have lots of tricks to adjust, but even after 1000s  of floors, even we are occasionally surprised.
  • It will change.  Concrete floors may develop small white spots, dark spots, browns spots, or may not get any spots.  Anyway, new is not old.  Old may be better, though (see above).  If things changing freaks the customer out out, they need to pick something else.   
  • It is not completely maintenance free.  Sealer outside lasts 2-10 years. All interior floors need some re-application of whatever is keeping them shiny and stain resistant.
Sealing vs. coating vs. waxing vs. diamond polishing
“To design a desk which may cost $1,000 is easy for a furniture designer but to design a functional and good desk which shall cost only $50 can only be done by the very best” - Ingvar Kamprad (Founder of Ikea)

We arrived at our unique way of finishing floors by holding these 5 priorities:
  1. Will it work 100% of the time in the real world? (regardless of moisture passing through the concrete slab, efflorescence, etc.)
  2. Does it look great?
  3. Is it durable?
  4. Can we easily service it in 5, 10, 20, or 30 years?
  5. Can it be sustainably installed at an attractive price? (this was the hardest)

All concrete finishes have a job they are perfect for, so here are the pros/cons of everything we know of:
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Mitigating the expense of diamond polishing
“Expensive” is a fun problem to solve. I take Ingvar Kamprad’s quote to heart and I go to work every day on the internal efficiencies of element7concrete. I look at the business as a vehicle, and like the clear engine cover on an exotic sports car bonnet i, I want the mechanisms of delivery to be worthy of complete transparency.

Mitigating a comparative lack of stain resistance
Regarding the technical weaknesses of polished concrete - the lesser resistance to staining, it’s important to first review our priorities and give some background info. Again, our ranked objectives start off as
  1. Will it work 100% of the time in the real world? (regardless of moisture passing through the concrete slab, efflorescence, etc.)
  2. Does it look great?
  3. Is it durable?
  4. Can we easily service it in 5, 10, 20, or 30 years?

Regarding the 1st, that is why we are not coating or sealing concrete as most slabs in our area eventually pass enough moisture to create a bond issue somewhere and / or efflorescence (white salt that migrates out of concrete).
Regarding our second objective, we have found some polished concrete guard products have color enhancers that make colored floors look categorically better.
Regarding durability and servicing the floor, a quick definition is in order for “polished concrete guard product” (PCGP). These are impregnating or thin-build sealers for polished concrete. They generally are to be burnished after installation with a diamond impregnated pad on a heavy (propane powered) burnisher (pictured below). Some of these materials form films  (Scofield’s Guard-W, LYTHIC Protector, H&C’s Lithium Protective Finish, etc.), others impregnate the slab (CPS Stain Armor, GranQuarz 355E), and some do a bit of both (AmeriPolish SP and SR2). There is no 1 PCGP that we can say is categorically ideal, but the combination of a water-based latex  acrylic on the first pass for or resistance to acids and a color enhancer, with a solvent-borne siloxane on the second coat for its resistance to oil-based stains seems to be ideal.
We use a densifier with a bit of siloxane in it that is engineered to bond well with a polished concrete guard product (PCGP) that has a water-based latex element for resistance to acids and a color enhancer.

A deeper look into the challenges of refinishing
Coatings and sealers make a lot of sense in places where everything could be moved out after a decade or two of use for repair. However, interior floors of homes do not fit in this category. Sealers on floors will get scratched, and applying more sealer to a scratched floor results in an unattractive texture. Stripping sealer requires grinding or harsh chemicals. There is a new generation of strippers that are supposedly soy or citrus based and therefore safer, but as an installer I can tell you these chemicals are NASTY. I’m not a real sensitive guy, but even with a Tyvek suit, gloves and a respirator I felt sick enough to not want any of my people to have to use these materials again. A little research into the SDSs for these materials show they still contain Dipropyleneglycol methyl ether, Petroleum naphtha, N-Methyl Pyrrolidone, and though they add citrus terpenes to make them smell natural, they are not good to be around! Installing something that will get scratched up and require these chemicals to remove seems frankly irresponsible to me.

A deeper look into this industry.
Most companies polishing concrete with fall into 2 categories: growing companies working to serve bigger and bigger commercial clients or boutique installers. David Stephenson writes “Over the last few years, there’s been a change. The medium-sized contractors seem to be disappearing rapidly. It seems the owners of these companies have made a conscious decision to either get smaller or larger. If they choose to get smaller, they focus on higher-end projects that carry maximum margin…On the flip side of the coin, many owners have decided their best path to success is to grow larger.”

So what? So the tools and materials made available either maximize the consistent service of nationwide accounts or the wowing of clients by boutique installers. The former is where the money is for the suppliers, and polishing is frankly boring for most boutique installers so they tend to focus on coatings, castings, and overlays. Neither of these directions add up to the most durable, efficiently installed floors possible. The consistency needed for nationwide accounts undermines the efficiency and durability because step 1 there means removing the trowel marks by cutting the cream of the concrete off. This is the hardest, most durable part of the concrete, and everybody knows it. But having a consistent look across all stores is of more value to that customer. The boutique installer is more focused on novel finishes than durability.

What seems to be lacking for everybody is objective standards for testing and clear data. Sellers of materials have pinned a lot of faith on chemical floor hardeners as they have the widest range of application methods. In 2014, George Garber referenced an interesting study in his articlee for Concrete Construction Magazine. It turns out Massud Sadegzadeh and Roger Kettle at Aston University in the U.K., compared 2 kinds of silicate floor hardeners over 30 years ago. Their work shows a 15-38% improvement in wear across slabs of varying quality for both. This concurs with the CPAA in 2009 on concurring that all floor-hardening materials, if applied to rejection, do the same thing. Again it was shown that the fundamentals of concrete placement (low water/cement, thorough consolidation, good finishing practices, proper curing, etc) are more important than brand of chemicals applied after the fact. The challenge with these findings is that they don’t help sell anything. What we have found as the solution is to cultivate good relationships with the best placement contractors and work with homebuilders to find enough in the budget to get a great slab of concrete to start with.
A backwards customer experience
Back to the moon question: we are still doing 100s floors every month, and I still run into customers every time I go to the grocery store. What we have found is that almost every client learns to love their floor over time. No matter how understanding they are, the initial installation leaves them wishing something was different. However, those become the beauty marks they learn to love. Additionally, we have found that “densifiers can take 2-6 weeks to attain full densification” Technical literature for PCGPs (polished concrete stain-guard products) all seem to say “gains its full stain repellency properties in 7 days.” Color can change over time, and perception of color will change almost every time. Concrete floors done in this way seem to please more over time than when new. Therefore, we believe this is the closest answer to “What is the best, most efficient thing to do for flooring?” Thank you for your interest in sustainable flooring. Please email me at cory@element7concrete.com with further questions.


Friday, August 11, 2017

My $20,000 bet on my team

If you drove by 7223 W. FM 1431 yesterday after 8AM, it looked like a ghost town. There were no cars in the team-member lot, all 7 service trucks were parked, you could even wander into the gallery pod and never be spoken to. It looked like we were suddenly put out of business.

We were not.

I decided months ago to block out 2 days of productive work for all teams to attend the simulcast of the 2017 Global Leadership Summit at First Baptist Church in Marble Falls.

It could have been a source for an ego trip at the church (ironic, I know). We had about 5 times as many people there as any other company. The decorum of my team was outstanding. We are a physically impressive group, and everybody sat focused and alert throughout the talks. We had a big room to ourselves for breakout meetings, and the reflections of the speakers' points were great.

It was not a party for me. Aside from the tickets and the free lunch, I am paying for 448 hours of "work" that I know will create zero revenue this week.

I just kept thinking "I hope I am spending this wisely." I have always invested in personal/professional development five-figures/year for me is a standard operating procedure. I have little doubt we could've grown to where we are without that sustained investment. I've never invested so much in others though.

There is a chance that none of this will stick. There is a chance that I am a fool to pay so generously and to invest in the minds of workmen so deeply. There is a chance that all the work on our custom labor and material tracking software and the ERP linking all our information systems together is for naught. The risk I take every day for how little I have this company pay me is ridiculous on paper. The chance for total failure faces me daily. There is also a chance for massive positive impact.

I have a huge vision for this company. I love each member of my team. I made this investment because I figured even at full opportunity cost, this was 2.2% of our payroll last year. I pray they all prove me right.