A Can of Success

Tommy was having a bad day. It started at breakfast. The Ikea chair he assembled the night before collapsed when he sat on it. It went down from there. What he didn’t know was that fate was about to intervene.

When he got to work, his boss called him into his office. “Son,” he said, “I’m sorry, but corporate asked me to make a headcount reduction. You’re the last person hired, so, unfortunately, you’re also the first to be laid off.”

Just like that, Tommy was jobless. Could this day get any worse, he thought? Then, his phone rang.

Tommy smiled when he looked at the caller ID. It was his girlfriend. “Hi babe,” he answered.

“Tommy,” she said. “We’ve got to talk.”

Uh oh. He pulled over and turned off the car. “Why? What’s up?”

“We need to talk in person.”

“What’s wrong with now?”

She sighed. “If you insist. I got offered a job today. I’m going to take it.”

“Hey, that’s great.”

“The job is based in New York. I’m moving in two weeks.”

“New York. I can’t move to New York.”

“I know Tommy. I don’t expect you to follow me to New York and, I really want this job. So, I guess this is goodbye.”

“Is that it?”

“I’m sorry Tommy. I told you this was a possibility. Look, I’m getting a call from my new boss. I have to go.”

She hung up and Tommy just sat there. If he was honest, he knew it wasn’t the greatest relationship or that she probably wasn’t the right person for him, but she was someone he felt he could attract. I can’t believe this, he thought to himself. Fired from a crummy job and dumped by a crummy girlfriend on the same crummy day. What else could go wrong and make the crummy day even crummier?

When Tommy started his car, he heard a clicking sound and nothing. Freaking great. Just freaking great!

Tommy got out and kicked the tire. Hard. “Ow,” he screamed. “Crap that hurt.”

Tommy could feel his heart racing. He needed to calm down and cool off. It was hot and humid outside, so he stepped into the store next to where he parked. Stenciled on the front door was, “The Fate Store.”

As he walked in, a bell chimed. “Welcome to The Fate Store,” proclaimed a short, bald, Asian man. “Have you come to choose a new fate for yourself?”

“Huh,” said Tommy. “What are you selling?”

“I sell fate. Fate brought you here so you must need to change your fate. Come, come. You see the cans of fate. Find your fate.”

Tommy looked around and saw stacks and stacks of small cans. Each was neatly labeled. Tommy grabbed one at random. “A Life of Misery,” read Tommy. “Who would want a life of misery?”

“You would be surprised,” said the proprietor. “Many people choose misery. Why? I don’t know. People decide they want failed marriages. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Tommy examined more cans. He discarded “A Life Spent Living in the Past,” “A Life Obsessed With What Could Have Been,” and “A Life of Mistake After Mistake.”

“Uh, sorry,” Tommy remarked to the proprietor, “But these suck.”

“Ah,” said the proprietor, “Many fates ‘suck’ as you say, but they are very, very popular. People love to select them.”

“YAW!” screamed Tommy, dropping the can titled, “A Life of Misfortune.” “I’ve had enough of this.”

“Then keep looking,” encouraged the proprietor. “Keep looking. Your fate is here. You merely need to choose it.”

“Hey, look at this one,” said Tommy. It was labeled “A Successful Life.” “This is more like it. How much does this cost?”

“Ah. What is the price of success, of a successful life? It is something that you pay for over time. A lot of success costs more than a little success.”

“I don’t know,” said Tommy. “I don’t have much money now.”

“No money down. You can sign,” said the proprietor. “Here, here. Sign this.” He pulled a piece of paper from a drawer.

Tommy read it. The headline was “Bill of Sale.” It read simply, “I, the undersigned, do hereby commit to paying the price of a successful life in accordance with the success I achieve.”

“It still doesn’t say how much. I don’t like committing to an open-ended charge.”

“Ah,” said the proprietor. “That is because the payment is entirely up to you. You decide how much to pay, when to pay, where to pay, and how to pay. Just sign.”

“Okay, how do I pay? Do I come here?”

“The universe will collect. Fate will collect,” said the proprietor.

Oh, what the heck thought Tommy. He signed.

“Congratulations,” said the proprietor. “You have started your journey.”

“Yeah, now if I could only start my car.”

“What does the can say?” asked the proprietor.

Tommy looked. “It says shake whenever you need to more success. Open when you no longer need more success.”

“So, shake,” said the proprietor.

Tommy felt foolish, but he shook the can anyway. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he could hear something rattling around in the can.

“Let’s look at your car and see if you can successfully start it,” suggested the proprietor.

Tommy walked out with the proprietor and popped the hood. He tried to start the car, but after the click, click, click, he stopped. The proprietor reached into his back pocket and removed a huge wrench. Tommy wondered where he was hiding it, how he was hiding it. The proprietor suddenly reached out and hammered the wrench against the starter. “Try it now,” he suggested.

The car turned right over. “Hey thanks,” said Tommy. He jumped out to close the hood, but the proprietor was nowhere to be seen. He wondered where he went and tried the door to the store. It was locked.

Whatever, Tommy thought. Now I just need a job where I can be successful. He thought for a moment. Why not? Again, feeling a little foolish, he shook the can of success and pulled out into traffic. Immediately in front of him was a high cube van with a large sign on the back stating, “Now hiring. No experience necessary. Will train.”

Tommy thought this must be some kind of a sign. He followed the truck when it made a couple of turns and pulled into a fenced yard. The building next to the yard had an identical sign on it. The company name was SmithCo. Tommy got out, walked in, applied for a job, was interviewed on the spot by Dan Smith the owner, and was hired. Even better, SmithCo paid more than the warehouse job he just lost. Tommy had never been so successful when looking for a job.

Over the next week, Tommy was offered basic training by SmithCo’s service manager while given a variety of tasks around the company’s shop, such as cleaning, counting inventory, and so on. He was given books to take home and study to speed along his progress. Every morning the service manager would question him on what he learned the day before.

When he was satisfied with his basic knowledge, the service manager assigned Tommy to work as an apprentice for Stanley, one of the senior technicians. “Pay attention,” urged the service manager, “because you can learn a lot from Stanley.”

On the morning he was to start riding with Stanley, Tommy took out his successful life can and shook it like crazy. He really wanted to succeed with SmithCo. When he met Stanley, Tommy took to him immediately. Stanley was in his 50s and seemed grateful for someone to help with the physical work.

“Kid, this is a good company and a great industry,” Stanley informed Tommy on their first day. “Once you learn the trade, you’ll never lack work. Even if you do something else, you can always fall back on the trade. Plus, there are no limits on how successful you can become. If you want to start your own company someday, you can probably do it.”

“Excuse me for asking, but how come you haven’t started your own company?”

Stanley laughed. “Kid I did. I did okay for a few years, but I just wasn’t willing to pay the price to be a successful business owner. I didn’t like marketing. I hated the government paperwork. I just like fixing stuff. One day Danny Smith asked me if I wouldn’t rather sell to him and go to work for him. He said I’d make more money and have fewer headaches. And he was right. I’m happy doing what I like, which is fixing stuff.”

Hmm, thought Tommy. Pay the price. Well, I’m willing to pay the price. Maybe I can run my own company one day.

As the weeks passed and Tommy was learning the trade from Stanley, he was feeling more confident about everything else in his life, especially when he shook the successful life can. He shook it before rebuilding the Ikea chair and it held together. He even shook it when the blonde moved into his apartment complex.

Tommy was hardly a ladies’ man. Asking the blonde out was outkicking his coverage, but after shaking the can of success, he felt emboldened to try. His usual lame approach was to look at his shoes and say something like, “You wouldn’t want to go out with me, would you?”

Instead, when he ran into the blonde at the apartment complex’ mailboxes he asked, “Hey, you’re new here, right?”

“I am,” she said.

He extended his hand. “Tommy.”

She grasped his. “Beth.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Beth. Where are you from?”

“New York,” Beth answered, nearly causing Tommy to choke, thinking about his former girlfriend.

“New York? Wow. It’s got to be an adjustment moving here.”

Beth laughed. “Yeah, it is. There are more good changes than bad changes.”

“What are good changes?”

“I really like the outdoors, the fresh air. Despite living in the city, I’ve never been much of a city girl.”

Tommy jumped in. “So why don’t I show you one of the greatest trails in the area. Don’t worry, it’s well traveled, and the waterfall at the end is amazing.”

Beth pondered and seemed to feel Tommy was safe. “Sounds terrific,” she said.

Go for it, Tommy thought to himself. “How about Saturday? We could hike the trail and have a picnic lunch at the waterfall.”

“Deal,” said Beth, “but I get to pack the lunch.’

When Tommy got back to his apartment, he literally kissed the successful life can. “You,” he said to the can, “are amazing.”


Fast forward 30 years and Tommy was cutting his grass and looking at his mobile phone after every pass, watching his bank account. He had just sold his business for a 10X multiple on $3 million of EBITDA and was waiting for the money to hit. He refreshed the web page showing his bank balance. The number changed, increasing by $30 million.

“Yes!” he screamed to no one. He rushed into the house and held out his phone. “Beth, look at this!”

“I can’t even wrap my head around this,” she said, “but I knew you would be a success from the first moment we met.”

Beth hugged and kissed her husband. When they broke, Tommy went to his home office. He opened a drawer and pulled out the successful life can. He read the label, “Open when you no longer need success.”

Tommy reflected. He’d had a great life. It all started when he walked into The Fate Store, which he could never find later. He’d tried to find it many times but never seemed to locate the street. Whenever he asked people about it, no one had ever heard of The Fate Store and its funny little proprietor.

At SmithCo he put in the effort as an apprentice and earned his own truck. While he never started his own company, he did advance to service manager. Later, he bought SmithCo from Dan Smith, who had become one of his mentors, along with Stanley.

Over the last few years, it was Tommy’s turn to serve as a mentor to others. Some were employees. Others were contractors he met in business alliance meetings. One was even a local competitor. So much had been given to him, that Tommy felt called to give back to others. It seemed that whenever he gave, he received just as much, if not more back.

Under Tommy’s leadership, SmithCo grew and grew more profitable. He rarely shook the successful life can anymore, yet success still seemed to follow him.

Not only was his professional life blessed, but his personal life also exceeded any expectations he might have had as a youth. He was married to the woman of his dreams and had awesome kids, which he credited to Beth more than his efforts. While he managed to attend the school plays and afternoon sporting events, Beth played a greater part in raising their kids than he could. It was part of the price he paid for growing a successful company.

Tommy rotated the can and read the back. “Shake whenever you need to have more success. Open when you no longer need more success.”

He rocked back in his chair and thought about the success he’d enjoyed. It was time. He walked into the kitchen, grabbed a can opener out of the drawer, and proceeded to open the can of success.

Inside, there were several numbered pieces of cardboard with writing on them. He read the first one. It stated, “Success does not come from a can.”

On the second was written, “Success comes from hard work, the belief you can succeed, and the willingness to take risks and venture forth. If this can helped you to a successful life, it was only because it helped you gain the confidence you need to believe you could succeed, to take the risks necessary to succeed and to venture forth. The hard work was all yours. All you needed was confidence.”

Tommy leaned back and smiled. Yeah, he thought. Before he walked into The Fate Store he lacked confidence in himself. Because of that he didn’t think he could succeed and wasn’t willing to risk the effort success required. The successful life-can was nothing more than a trick to get him to believe in himself. Yet, it was a trick that changed the trajectory of this life.

On the final piece of cardboard, Tommy read, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The successful life is one well-lived.”

Indeed, he thought.


Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

The Coffee Conversation

Jerry was sitting in the coffee shop, sipping on an overpriced cup of Sumatra coffee, and staring at his phone. The coffee was a small luxury he should have passed on, but he was craving caffeine. He tried to enjoy it. There didn’t seem to be much he could enjoy lately. Yet, when an older gentleman asked if he could share his table in the crowded coffee shop, Jerry’s worldview was about to change.

“Excuse me,” Jerry heard. “Do you mind if I share your table?”

Jerry looked up. The man was cheerful and elderly with a head full of grey hair. Jerry said, “Sure, take a chair.”

“I just don’t get it,” mumbled Jerry to himself.

“Get what?” the man asked.

Jerry sighed. In a rush, he said, “I don’t get anything. I don’t understand the world. I don’t know why everything costs so much, why I can’t get air handlers for my business, why I can’t find employees, why the economy is tanking, anything.”

The old man said, “Yes, that is a lot. What do you do?”

“I’m a plumbing and air conditioning contractor.”

“I thought contractors have been doing pretty good,” the old man countered.

“Well, yeah, but that’s not the future. I mean, things don’t look good.”

The old man took a sip of his coffee. He said, “Do you mean things don’t look good in general or that things don’t look good for you in particular?”

Jerry wondered why the heck he was talking to this man, but it felt good to unload a little. He answered, “For… well, everything. I feel like nothing is in my control.”

“But you own a company?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Don’t you control your company?”

“Somewhat,” said Jerry. “It’s so hard to find people, so my employees know they have me over a barrel. If I ask them to do something they don’t want to do, they quit.”

“You mean you have to persuade them and lead them instead of simply ordering them? And that you control how you address them and lead them?”

“Uh, well when you put it like that it sounds different.”

“I think you have more control than you think.”

“What do you know about it?” barked Jerry. He was getting tired of the old man.

“Whoa. I’m not trying to argue with you or interrupt your pity party. I’m just trying to have a conversation over a cup of coffee. I can leave if you’d like.”

“No,” said Jerry. “Sorry. I’m just frustrated.”

“Well, I can understand that. But you said you can’t control anything. Are you sure?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can control your attitude, right? I mean, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond, right?”

“I suppose.”

“You’re the leader of your company. It’s my experience that the people in an organization respond to and reflect their leaders but amplified. If you look scared, they think the worst, expect their jobs are in jeopardy, and start looking for new jobs. It works the same way in reverse. If you’re confident and positive, they will be too. Does that make sense?”

“Uh, a little,” said Jerry.

“Then, you also seem worried about business.”

“I am.”

“But people can’t live without plumbing, heating, and air conditioning, right?”

“There are still fewer calls,” said Jerry.

“So, what can you do about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“What are your competitors doing?”

“Most of them are like me. They don’t know what to do, but they worry about money so they cut spending as much as they can.”


“Why? So they don’t run out of money,” said Jerry.

“So,” said the old man, “they are worried about money because there are fewer calls, which means it’s harder to find a customer, so they cut back on their efforts to find one? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Not when you put it like that.”

“But you don’t have to be like them, do you? I mean, you control your marketing, advertising, and sales, right?”

“Uh, well. Yeah. I guess.”

“Do you or don’t you?”

“I do,” said Jerry forcefully.

“So, what do you think will happen if you put forth more effort to get customers when your competitors are doing less?”

“I’ll get more customers?”

“Kinda what I think.”

Jerry thought about what the man said for a second. It made sense. He said, “So you’re saying I can’t control prices, inflation, or the economy, but I can control my attitude and I can control how my company responds.”

“Exactly, except you can control your prices.”

“To a limit.”

“Really? You just paid $6 for a buck’s worth of coffee.”

“Well, I really needed some caffeine.”

“And you don’t think people really need plumbing? Or heating? Or air conditioning?”

Jerry looked the man up and down. “Who are you?” he asked him.

The old man smiled. “I’m someone who was just like you. I used to own a contracting company and sold it years ago for a few million. I saw you get out of your truck and thought I’d strike up a conversation.”


“When I was coming up in the business and struggling, older contractors helped me. For the longest time, I didn’t trust them. Then I realized they were simply paying forward the help they received. This is a great business. You have more control over your life and business than almost any of the people you see working in the high-rise corporate cube farms surrounding this coffee shop. If there’s a recession, you can decide whether you want to participate in it, or not. Personally, I would advise against participating. I never did.”

“Thank you,” said Jerry simply.

The old man. No, the old contractor shrugged, got up and said on the way out, “Thank me by paying it forward.”

Jerry looked at his coffee. Yeah, he could probably charge more. If he did, he could market more. He sipped the coffee, relishing the taste. He realized that it was up to him whether he enjoyed things or not. Like the old contractor said, he had more control than he thought.


Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

The Trust Cascade

Do you know about the trust cascade? Think of a series of pools where water spills from one down to the next. Each pool gets a little larger. This is the way trust cascades from source to source. If you can get to the top of the trust cascade, you can pick up customers where there’s less noise, less competition, and less effort overall.

Let’s look at the trust cascade in action. Last fall, after searching for the better part of the year, my wife and I bought a small ranch with a 140-year-old log cabin. The cabin has been expanded and renovated more than once, but it is still an old structure and there’s work needed.

Driving away from the closing my wife turned to me and said, “Do we know what we’re doing?” The answer, of course, was no. No clue. But I figured we could hire people who had a clue. We just needed to find them. This would prove harder than I expected.

Our ranch is located a little less than an hour from our house. It is close enough that we can run up there to take care of something and if necessary, return with only half a day gone. But it is too far to expect any of our service companies to make the trip. We need new ones.

Fortunately, the prior owners left us with a binder of the people they used. People in the binder had proven themselves reliable to the prior owner. They were at the top of the trust cascade. We called Tony for mowing. We called Lupe for cleaning. When there was a leak with the sprinkler, we called Clint. We never even considered calling anyone else.

There are other things we need repaired or replaced that aren’t covered by the binder. We need a new roof. We need some fence work. We need on-site small engine repair. There’s more. Who do we call? How do we find a good service provider?

Without question, there are people who can provide the services we need and who are looking for customers as desperately as we are looking for service providers. How do we find them? How do they find us?

If you were in our shoes, what would you do? Ask someone you trust for a referral? Other than the binder, referrals from a friend or neighbor would be at the top of the trust cascade. Unfortunately, we don’t really know anyone. I’ve never even seen a neighbor. It’s hard to even introduce yourself when every piece of property is gated.

I could search online, but that’s about like throwing a dart at a dartboard. Maybe I’ll get a good company. Maybe not. There is simply no trust present. This is the bottom of the trust cascade. If all else fails, search online.

You might point out that there are reviews. True. I’ll trust reviews when I’m looking for a restaurant but would rather not for major work on my house. The greater the expense, the greater the need for trust.

So, if the choice is between two companies I know nothing about and one has better reviews, that one might get the nod. It’s still further down the trust cascade than I want to travel.

I want a referral from someone I trust. Since I don’t know anyone, I’m planning on attending the community’s Rotary Club. I’ll ask for referrals from Rotarians.

In my own Rotary Club, I’ve found attorneys, bankers, realtors, commercial insurance brokers, a property tax challenge service, remodelers, and employees. I trust someone in the club or someone referred by a club member more than someone found at random. This is near the top of the trust cascade.

If there is a roofer in the Rotary Club, I’ll ask him to take a look at our cabin and probably give him the work. His competitor may do a lot of advertising, have a great website, and get a ton of good reviews. It won’t matter. Those are farther down the trust cascade.

If you want to operate higher up the trust cascade than your competitors, you must get involved in the community. Join a service club. Join a leads club. Get involved with the chamber of commerce. Participate in community events.

My Rotary Club has 60 members. Empirical research by Columbia University’s Tian Zheng suggested the average American knows 600 people. This means that my Rotary Club has a network of up to 36,000 people (i.e., 60 X 600). Some will know fewer than 600 and some more. Some will know some of the same people. Regardless, the people in the club collectively know a LOT of people. Service club members are connected and are community centers of influence. They are the people others call to find a good roofer, air conditioning contractor, plumber, and so on.

Larry Taylor, a legendary air conditioning contractor likes to say it’s easier to sell from the board room than the equipment room. He got involved in as many local organizations as he could.

That might not be your thing. Perhaps you would rather eat lunch by yourself than sit with community centers of influence who others call when looking for a service provider.

If you won’t do it, delegate it to someone else in your company. If no one will do it, hire someone with an outgoing personality to work as your company ambassador.  Put your business at the top of the trust cascade to get more business with less competition.


Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.