You could say that I fell face-first into my career.
When I was in junior high school, it was my job on my family’s ranch in Western Alberta, Canada, to help take care of our herd of about 300 cows. One morning it was about 40° below zero and the tractors wouldn’t even start. Trekking out to the fields on foot before school, carrying a bail in each hand, I slipped - boom! - and planted my face right into a fresh cow pie. It froze right onto me before I could wipe it off.
That’s when I paused and pondered life for a moment. My Dad had been urging me to choose a career: doctor, lawyer or engineer. I had eliminated lawyer because I'm not a big fan of reading and writing (I have severe dyslexia). I wasn’t that interested in biology, so medicine made little sense. Standing there in that icy field, cow patty adhered to my face, knowing I still had to feed those cows because they were hungry and didn’t much care about my predicament, the decision seemed pretty clear.
“You know,” I thought, “it might not be such a bad idea to go to college and become an engineer."
So I did. Studying engineering enabled me to understand software and artificial intelligence. It taught me how things worked. But ranching and being a cowboy taught me something more important - how life worked.
The point is, they’re all a part of me.
From the time I was 3, I was driving a tractor (my Dad put it in what we called “granny gear”). Later, when the fields needed clearing, there I was moving rocks. Of course, when the cows needed to be fed, regardless of temperature, I did that too.
But it wasn’t all hard work. Roping -- working as a cowboy -- well, that’s a passion and remains so today. I began roping when I was just a year-and-a-half old. A saddle maker made me a pair of chaps and a custom baby rope. I used the rope to rustle up chickens and one particularly mean tom turkey that needed to be taught a lesson. I’ve been hooked ever since.
So when my wife admonishes me: “Either quit whining about your knee or stop jumping off horses.” I tell her, “Okay,” and I quit whining.
It’s worth it. Every day being a cowboy reminds me of all the lessons I’ve learned from that way of life. They are so ingrained in who I am that they’ve become the moral base for my company, virtual assistant maker Next IT.
Call them my cowboy rules of life:
1. Failure is not an option. It doesn't matter how cold it is or whether you're sick. If you don’t feed the cows, they die.
2. Treat other people well. When you run into trouble on a ranch, the only people who can help are your neighbors, so you’d better treat them fairly. Same thing goes for work. You never know who your next business partner will be.
3. Always have a backup plan. If you plant wheat, and a drought wipes out your crop, you’ll be okay if you have a backup plan, like cattle. You can stay alive for another year until you can grow your wheat. Business is no different. No matter how good your ideas, something can go wrong. So always make a contingency plan.
4. Listen to people around you. On a ranch, you always have to adapt to change. Maybe someone shows you a better way to harvest your fields. People invent new things all the time. As a CEO, I reserve the right to make a decision, but I highly encourage input. I’ve been known to switch sides in ten minutes if I hear an excellent argument.
5. Keep it simple. If you’re talking circles around someone, chances are you’re hiding your own ignorance. If you know your subject, you should be able to simplify it so even an eighth-grader can understand it.
6. You don't always have to be the best. You just have to be perfect (sometimes). When I was in my early 20s, I was regularly competing in rope matches at rodeos, and I told my friend that I was going to beat the best roper in the world, Roy Cooper, within a year. Let me just say that Roy Cooper was and is the god of calf roping.
It was a pretty lofty goal, so the next week, I started roping anyone, anytime, anywhere. Finally, I got the chance to take on Roy. I can’t say that I was a better roper than Roy. But I knew I had to rope as well as I humanly could. And I did. I made no mistakes. I was perfect.
And Roy? He made a slight bobble. That’s all it took. I won. It changed my life. Which leads me to the next rule:
7. Do the hard thing. No one would have given me a chance in hell of beating Roy Cooper. If I didn’t challenge myself, I wouldn’t have ever tried. If I didn’t challenge myself, I never would have taken on artificial intelligence. But I like doing the hard thing.
And, finally, the most important lesson I’ve learned:
8. You’re only as good as your word. Have integrity, even if others around you don’t. On a ranch, you have to trust people. And they have to trust you. That’s how it was and still is. I believe that business is the same. To this day I do multi-million dollar deals on a handshake.
When I was in fourth grade, my mentor told me, “Fred, if you can look yourself in the mirror every day and like what you're seeing, you're doing just fine.”
You know what? Nothing’s really changed.