“Glory Lies In the Attempt to Reach One’s Goal” #Gandhi

When I first told my mom that I wanted to start a business with PittMoss®, twenty some years ago, her response altered my earnest belief that anyone could do anything if they set their heart and mind to it. She told me that I was always reaching for things far beyond my grasp and that reaching too far, would one day, lead to a painful fall. I recall that she encouraged me to go find a nice government job.

I was reminded of that wasp sting recently while reading an INC. magazine article that declared that Entrepreneurship was disappearing. http://www.inc.com/magazine/201505/leigh-buchanan/the-vanishing-startups-in-decline.html

The writer’s reasoning for the decline was the perfectly predictable outcome of a generation who were taught risk aversion and therefore feared failing. Speaking as someone who has identified as an environmentalist for three decades, I’d add that the message younger, environmentally conscious generations hear is that Capitalism is at the root of all environmental ills. Simplistically, some have come to believe if they rid themselves of Capitalism the problem is solved.

Capitalism is seen as the problem by some.

Capitalism is seen as the problem by some.

When I first learned of the habitat degradations caused by the peat moss industry I actually thought about organizing protest rallies. With my event planning and PR skills it would have been both, perfectly executed logistically and splashed across a slow news cycle once a year. Instead of that total waste of time, resources and effort, I chose to be productive, invent PittMoss®, start a company and disrupt my environmentally challenged competition.

Now, as a solitary Entrepreneur, I certainly don’t have a comprehensive plan for reigniting the entire engine that drives economic prosperity. But I do understand that Entrepreneurship is about rewriting the rules, reshuffling a stale establishment and recalculating a new path to the future. The path I’m cutting is one that eliminates a need to degrade beneficial, carbon storing peat-lands, supply customers with a superior product, all while hiring employees and making use of inexhaustible supplies of recycled paper.

Each new generation of Entrepreneurs is like the batch of seeds planted every spring in a garden. Sure, some of them will fail but others will succeed and provide us a bountiful harvest. I believe a great generation is emerging, with ideals for a more equitable society and a healthier planet. If you have a dream to build a business, I for one encourage all of you to stand up and reach. Climb up to the highest point you can and reach. Crawl out on the shakiest branch and reach, because if you grab hold of that unreachable daydream, then I have no doubt you will change yourself and the world for the better.

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Reports of the Death of the American Dream are Greatly Exaggerated!

I challenge you to search the phrase ‘The American Dream is Dead’ on any search engine. You will find a mind numbing 34 million results on Google alone. The links include articles, pictures, cartoons, extremist political rants, and all sorts of whining victimization. As I read CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets on the subject I hear Linda Ronstadt’s voice in my head singing “poor, poor pitiful me”. I have to ask: Is the dream really dead or are we becoming a nation of people who don’t get back up on the horse after a fall? Or worse, are we now a people who wouldn’t even mount a horse because of the risk?

Brush yourself off and get back on that horse.

Many articles and accompanying reader comments, posted by folks who don’t seem to know the difference between are and our, foretell the crash of our economy, our culture, our position in the world and the unavoidable chaos to follow. An article from this fatalistic genre, by a gazillionaire Internet investor, titled ‘The Pitchforks are Coming’ warns of the impending uprising from the disgruntled, hungry masses.


The author, a self-proclaimed free market capitalist, appears to warn his fellow oligarchs to have the G650 fueled and ready at a moment’s notice for a refugee flight to New Zealand. This guy is in the one percent of the one percent, by his own admission, and he’s worried that us middle and lower class American riff-raff, who don’t have elected officials on speed dial, will rise up and dispense some good ole social justice. He argues that raising the minimum wage will placate and temper us from our violent revolutionary ways.

Frankly, I don’t believe he and his billionaire buddies need to be worried. He is wrong though if he thinks a few extra dollars in a mini-mart, express oil-change, or fast-food paycheck is going to alleviate the growing mistrust of an establishment, increasingly disconnected from the interests and realities of everyday Americans. While our biggest, “too big to fail”, corporations avoid taxes by sneaking off to their new foreign HQs, our nation’s independent thinkers, tinkerers, risk takers, small business people, and oh by the way our biggest job creators, are left to pay the ever growing tab. Offering up cake crumbs like minimum wage increases, when wholesale reform is needed is not going to solve the problems of inequality or the erosion of the American middle class.

Once the envy of the world a few short decades ago, The American Middle-class is now 20% poorer than we were in 1984 according to a recent Washington Post Wonkblog.


At the same time, and probably not coincidently, the culture of entrepreneurship has been flagging here as well.


Maybe those 34 million posts on Google slamming the American Dream as impossible, irrelevant or only for the rich has eroded the self-confidence needed to start an entrepreneurial venture. Of course, you can believe the hype from website writers with shiny new Journalism degrees, Jonesing for internet clicks, or listen to a guy whose twenty year business pursuit is finally becoming reality. The American Dream is not dead or only for the rich and well connected. It is very much alive and well if you’re willing to keep reaching for it. The bruises on my backside from falling off that fucking horse hundreds of times proves just how it is done.

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The Best Year of My Life

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t” David Foster Wallace http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhhC_N6Bm_s

My very first blog post on PittMoss® From the Ground Up, announcing my departure from a successful, long-term tourism career to pursue an entrepreneurial adventure, happened a little over a year ago. The past three hundred and ninty odd days have flown by, mostly. Admittedly, there have been some periods of eternally slow waiting for a piece of equipment or a much needed check. Those of you who know me, know, patience is not my greatest strength.

Despite the occasional worries, I consider this venture a luxurious gift to myself, far surpassing ownership of an Italian sports car, designed by someone named Enzo or a Miami Beach condo with an ocean view. This past year has been a sabbatical from the unconsciousness of contemporary life, working for others. Some might call what I’m doing a mid-life crisis but I consider it the greatest fiftieth birthday gift I could ever have given myself.

In the past twelve months I have, candidly, spent most of my savings buying big pieces of manufacturing equipment, diesel fuel, truck-loads of recycled paper, and product additives. I’ve paid salaries to employees, fees to professionals, and taxes to local, state and federal governments, all while withholding a salary to myself. I’ve provided truckloads of product samples to prospective customers and debated with my product’s skeptics. My partners, employees and I have proudly delivered orders of PittMoss®, and swelled with pride by making something others want to possess. I thought nothing could surpass that level of gratification until I watched a struggling local farmer show off the big, beautiful, and bountiful plant plugs he grew in PittMoss® to other growers and farmers.

Plant plug growing in PittMoss®

Plant plug growing in PittMoss® compared to one growing in peat

I haven’t taken a grand vacation in the last twelve months, or read acclaimed novels, while sifting warm sand between my toes, watching my yacht lie at anchor off shore. No major personal purchases have occurred within the Handley household and said household is a few days away from being owned by others as I write this post. Our start-up has not been recognized by any International Environmental Organizations or been featured on any national or international news broadcasts but despite the modern, reality TV trappings of success we feel it within ourselves. Somehow I know that is more important like holding a bag of seeds through the winter to plant in the spring.

Some people might look at my past twelve-month existence and see an undesirable life of risk, complication and uncertainty. Truth be told, I have experienced more stress, discomfort and sleepless nights in the past year than I can really ever recall. I’m not complaining though. Nope, I’m bragging, like posting luxury vacation photos to a Facebook wall, or Instagram or Twitter account. No, I’m telling you all about my year of liberation from the slow abrasive daily grind. And yeah, I sort of feel smug about it.

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Lessons in Persistence, Doggedness & Fighting Dirty from the Bear Pit

The mills and factories of the “Workshop of the World” where I grow up near Gary, Indiana were rusting away and shuttering by the time of my high school graduation. I enlisted in the army to make my escape from the depressed, industrial region and was stationed at Fort McClellan, Alabama for boot camp. Memories of that fall of 1982 spent in the beautiful Choccolocco Foothills of the Appalachians are vivid but none more so, than my momentary fame in the Fort McClellan Bear Pit.

The Bear Pit was a five foot deep muddy hole in the middle of a parade and exercise ground that was twenty to twenty five feet in diameter and lined with sand bags. The exercise commenced when two squads were put down in to the hole with the objective of throwing everyone from the opposing squad out. Keeping as many of your own members in the pit was a prime strategy because two or three guys were needed just to throw one member of the opposition over the high wall.

One cold, wet, blustery day, while the base commander of 10,000-12,000 soldiers and his cadre of junior officers were inspecting our company on the parade ground, my squad of reforming pot heads and skater boy misfits and another composed of linebackers was ordered into the pit. In pretty quick order each and every famine victim from my side was thrown over the rim. Perhaps it was my low center of gravity, or maybe my Indiana, corn-fed physique, or the slickness of the mud that was coating me, but those eight guys could not get a grip on me to throw me over the wall.

The whole company was soon gathered around the rim of the Bear Pit cheering me on, including my muddy, expelled comrades and the battalion brass, who’d come over in their overly starched and pressed cammies and spit-shined, jump boots to see what was causing the commotion. Sensing that being immovable would be my only victory here, I determined that all was fair in this up close combat and began slinging the mud from my arms, hands and fingertips all about. While my opponents wiped their eyes and faces from my mud storm I intertwined my arms and legs around theirs and locked wrestling holds on two of them at a time.

Once they’d managed to break my grip from one leg I’d slide through their hands and between their legs, around the bottom of the pit like a greased pig until I’d find other limbs to latch on like a vise grip. Try as they might the other squad was stymied by my determination to anchor on to them and eventually the match was called a draw by the now mud splattered officers. As I emerged from the pit with a bloody nose and coated in a mixture of sweat and Alabama mud, a cheer rose up across the parade ground. As it died down into a chorus of boos for the other squad, I heard the post commander ask my company XO about me, who then asked my drill sergeant for my name. I thought he might say “good job Handley” or “we need more soldiers like you in this Army, Handley” but instead he said, “you got mud on my boots, Handley”.

Matt Knapp, staging an order for a new customer.

Matt Knapp, staging an order for a new customer.

I’ve thought about the Bear Pit a lot recently as my start-up manufacturing business has been boot strapping it’s way to sustainability and ultimately, profitability. I understand that stubbornness, willfulness and an ability to fight on (and sometimes fight dirty) without much recognition or reward, are essential attributes for any early stage entrepreneur. When you determine that failure is absolutely not an option, that you will not get thrown out of the Bear Pit, then it becomes easier to persevere one day to the next. Fear, trepidation, anxiety, they all melt away with the resolve to continue moving forward. PittMoss® may not be making my partners and I any money just yet, but it is, more importantly, making a name for itself and to us that feels like victory.

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One Innovator’s Dilemma!

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Marianne Williamson

There is a concept called ‘disruptive innovation’ that essentially explains how industry-leading companies lose their market share or worse, go out of business, due to apathy, arrogance or simply a failure to adapt to change. Leading companies are often aware of new innovations and may even be the innovators themselves but they fail to take decisive action to commercially exploit the new trend or product. They delay investment in or implementation of innovations because they are profitable with the status quo and don’t see profits to be made or their own demise until it is often far too late. The theory was framed by Harvard’s Clayton Christenson’s 1997 watershed book called ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’.

Think about the pony express being knocked off by the telegram, the millions of horse breeders, stable hands & buggy builders being idled by the success of the Model T Ford or bookstores and printers being replaced by web commerce and tablets. Disruptive innovation has been around as long as the human race has been trading and bartering and trying to build a better mouse trap. Because the book emerged in the early days of the dot coms many writers and pundits only discuss disruptive innovation as it relates to high tech innovations. No doubt new tech companies have stolen the lunch money of many old guard enterprises that epically failed to adapt and fell hard from their lofty perches. Conventional wisdom deems almost any industry ripe for change, even one of the oldest and dirtiest professions. NO, I’m not talking about the boom-chickie-bomb-bomb industry.

I meant the other old and dirty profession of farming, specifically farming in greenhouses and nurseries. For generations horticulture and floriculture farmers have utilized many of the same resources in 2013 as their grandparents utilized in in 1963, or great grandparents used in 1913. Last month may have witnessed the first real signs of market share erosion for our competition as the PittMoss® pilot plant sprang to life. With the flick of a switch, well three switches actually, we made, packaged and delivered some really beautiful product. It was the proof of concept I have been awaiting for 15 long years. PittMoss® is 100% commercially viable.

Do I want to put people out of work or cause businesses to go into bankruptcy? Of course not but if my product is to succeed then others must lose market share and they’ll suffer from those loses. I mentioned to a reporter that my goal has always been to see the end of peat moss harvesting and the demise of companies, who ditch and drain wetlands. She was literally horrified that I had expressed such an opinion and I noticed an article never appeared in the paper. I guess this innovators dilemma is he doesn’t know when to keep his big freaking mouth shut when he is talking to someone who believes that ‘Everybody Gets a Participation Ribbon’. It’s not really my fault if those companies go out of business. It’s Disruptive Innovation, not me.


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Multitudes of Angels in the Outfield

Mark Cuban recently participated in a panel discussion regarding the state of business innovation and investment. With my start-up in full swing, I’ve been spending a lot of time with business development types and prospective investors so hearing what he had to say was timely. Cuban stated that all one had to do to verify the weak prospects for investors in the current climate was to observe the record amounts of stock being bought back by public companies.

VJ Angellotto admiring the new sign he just put up!

VJ Angellotto admiring the new sign he just put up!

In other words, so few innovative companies or ideas are out there in the current marketplace that corporations are investing their cash in themselves at near record prices instead of acquiring the next big, innovative technologies. Just as corporations are finding good investments hard to come-by so too are professional venture capital groups and sophisticated high net-worth individuals. Angel investors, family and friends all seem to be out searching for quality investments outside of the stock market.

With so little fresh produce available to inspect, PittMoss™ got squeezed and sniffed by multiple suitors over the past few months. To be honest the attention feels pretty good after contemplating a business plan for going on two decades. I asked a former colleague of mine if he thought we were getting the attention because of the lack of competition or was PittMoss™ just that good of an idea? “There are more investors looking for good investments” he said”, than there are good investments looking for investors”. After sharing his nugget of wisdom he too offered to invest in my venture.

In this apparent sellers market of ideas, I had the privilege of meeting with many great and wonderful people this spring and summer. Many seemed trustworthy but instinctively I knew that early investors and partners in my venture could make or break me. I’ve come to realize that good partnerships are probably one of, if not the most important decisions I have had to make so far. I’m therefore proud to say that my perfect angel investor in PittMoss™ Development Co. LLC is a team of them in the form of Vince, Gloria and VJ Angellotto, which literally means Multitudes of Angels.

I’m reminded of that old black and white movie filmed in Pittsburgh where a team of angels shows up to help the Pirates win a pennant. PittMoss™ now has it’s own Angels in the Outfield and I think that is pretty cool.

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“Do not take a path, instead go where none exists and leave a trail” Ralph Waldo Emerson

PittMoss Development Company is awaiting our final piece of equipment, which we hope will be installed this Friday, about a month behind schedule. There was a back order on a part and so we were forced to delay our plans of dominating the horticulture world for a few more weeks. The minor setback gave Vince and I time to attend a tradeshow in Columbus, where we talked up PittMoss™ and he ate his first White Castle. He’s also stayed busy planning his annual Bocce Tournament. Matt took time to attend a family reunion in Tennessee and I went home to Indiana (State of) for the same reason. The following week my dad and brother came out for a few days of Western Pennsylvania hospitality.

We are total geeks about our family genealogy so armed with a short-term Ancestory.com membership, I discovered that our direct ancestor, William Handley, Jr. and a large brood were once located in nearby Fredericktown, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Monongahela River. We never knew we had a connection to the Pittsburgh region until I found that 1800 U.S. census record, so my brother, dad and I felt compelled to go for a drive to check out the little borough. We found a quiet village (and some of the best cinnamon rolls we’ve ever tasted) but no leads on the family’s connection to the region or migration.

There were no records showing land surveys or sales, marriages, births, deaths, legal disputes or any of the typical documentation demonstrating long-term residence. We thought that perhaps the family was just making their way up river in 1800 to the Ohio territory when the census taker beckoned them over to the settlement’s dock. It’s likely that they would take the easier water routes to newly opened western lands won through Independence. In a new century, in a newly forged nation and feeling the power of revolution, I’d like to think my ancestors were determined to lay down a new path to the frontier and their futures. I’d like to believe they were heading out boldly to where they’d be free to live the lives they wanted, without the tyranny of a monarch or servility to a landed, slave holding, aristocracy. At a time when 4 of 5 Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean there certainly were opportunities to lay down new trails for others to follow.

The Fredericktown Ferry has operated continuously since 1790.

The Fredericktown Ferry has operated continuously since 1790.

Crossing the river my ancestors used on the Fredericktown Ferry made me think that Old William probably worried about his choice to move his family westward. Did delays, bad weather, highwaymen and unexpected expenses make him question whether leaving familiar life in Virginia for an unknown existence in the west was fool hearty? I have no doubt he agonized much as I do now. I have no doubt family and friends encouraged him to be prudent and safe. My business development and equipment delays are absolutely nothing in comparison to what my ancestors endured and after 213 years I know their venture turned out pretty well. Some how that encourages me greatly.

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