Brainwashing isn't so bad after all.

This is ironic: a blog post about not creating online content. Element7concrete.com was crashed weeks ago, and while we have some stuff up and are excited to radically re-build, it is actually low on our list.

That's because we are more about the work than talking about the work.

Our main thing is to make the best concrete floors possible. There are not really best practices we can automatically adopt, so we have a culture of aggressive testing and experimentation.  The good news is I am built for this. I may be the president of a multi-million-dollar corporation, but I still come home most days with at least my legs covered in slurry. 

In addition, we are translating our standard operating procedures into content that teaches artisans strikingly faster and deeper than the standard on-the-job-training. Even now, the artisans that come to your job site in an element7concrete truck may have better honed skills than I did in  my prime. How is that possible? Don't most craft companies that grow just make weak copies of the original? 

Not in our case.

We are  deconstructing our processes and even craftsmanship itself, and arranging the skills in a progression that resonates all the way to their subconscious. We disabuse artisans of limiting beliefs, bad habits, and give them knowledge, tools, strategies and tactics to create value in a brilliant way using low-end materials to make  high-end finishes. Since we all brush our teeth, wash our bodies, clean our clothes and homes, why wouldn't we want to organize and/or replace the clutter of our own minds?

All this to say, when you see element7concrete.com as polished as one of our floors,  know that we have the goods to deliver on the hype. Stay grinding, my friends. 

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Interesting new technology and a great question.

When I go to the World of Concrete in Las Vegas, I nerd as hard as I can. (I may have coined a new verb there).

That is, I will set goals like

  • Find the head chemist of 3 companies today and learn something new from each of them. 
  • Find 3 people in your niche doing at least $10M and learn something new from each of them. 
  • Take 5 pages of raw notes and re-package them into something you could teach your team at home. 

and so on...

Anyone who sets goals knows there is a time in the middle when you wish you wouldn't have set them. At WOC, it plays out at about 4PM when you are exhausted and you still have 2 interesting people to ferret out and learn from. In 2008, I stumbled upon Xypex that way. Xypex can be added to  concrete to make it self-healing by growing crystals in the micro-cracks when exposed to water. This is a fascinating technology, and has served us well in niche projects for Risher Martin Fine HomesDelz Custom Homes, and a handful of direct-to-user projects where nothing else would have worked. 

Now, that may someday be supplanted by fungus! Researchers at Binghamton University have found a fungus spore that can be mixed into concrete to lay dormant until the concrete micro-cracks enough to allow water and air in. The fungi then spring into action healing the concrete. (Their article here.) 

What's brilliant is that the fungus kicks-in when the concrete taps-out. Conventional, untreated  concrete seems to disintegrate a bit over time. By adding this fungus spore, that is countered as needed.

That got me to thinking about cement in general. 5 years ago, we did our first urethane mortar job: that's a mixture of cement, sand, and urethane that has some amazing performance characteristics. 3 years ago, we started installing overlays made with a viscous epoxy binding decorative aggregates together. (Link to that work here.) We confidently install these over lots of substrates we would not be confident putting cement-based materials over. So, how cool would it be if there were bio-based binders that were resilient and altogether superior to cement?

Concrete engineers seem to focus on cement-like materials. However, there may be binders that have non of the problems of cement (cracking for instance) that are way "out of left field". 

We will keep soberly looking, thinking orthogonally and testing stuff. 

Maybe someday we will find a revolutionary new way to make stuff. 

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. 

Built with Purpose

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.  

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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. 

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.)

 

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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 atSierra 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

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?

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