My first boss: a tribute to Ben Lenz

This past weekend, I learned the sad news of the passing of Ben Lenz, a life-long family friend. Ben was the step-father to my brother’s friend Robert. Ben and his wife Pam (and her children) lived down the street from mine in the small town of Sea Cliff, NY. For many people, Ben was best known as the leader of the North Shore High School Explorers’ Club — for me, he was the first boss I ever had.Ben Lenz Bus

Ben Lenz was one of the most quirky, interesting people you could ever meet. No strike that — Ben defined the word eccentric. With his bushy gray curly hair, a cackling laugh, and his endless stories, Ben was a presence. He was very tall (probably over 6 foot 4) and the upper half of his body seemed to lean towards you [edit: according to his family, he wasn’t actually this tall. He just looked that tall to me!]. His gait was marked by a shuffle and a limp. Later in life, he used a cane as a walking stick. He drove a dark yellow VW bus, which he had converted into a camper.

In the mid 80’s, Ben decided to build a garden in his sprawling back yard. This was not just any garden. It was a Japanese inspired garden that was a tribute to his wife Pam. The garden had plants from all over the world, water features, sculptures, windmills and much more. He named the garden “Pam-Ben-monium” – and it was.

Sometime around the 5th or 6th grade, Ben offered me a job helping him with the garden. I’m not sure how this came to pass, but I loved the outdoors and probably was hanging around near the Lenz’s house anyway. He put me to work right away, and boy oh boy did we work. We moved huge rocks, dug dirt, and weeded on our hands and knees for hours under the hot sun. Ben barked out orders, and set the expectation early on that he wouldn’t put up with any complaining. He believed in hard work.

Ben had his own vision for the Pam-Ben-monium garden, but he also solicited my opinion. Without hesitation, he agreed to implement a few of my ideas. As a 10 year old, I welled with pride as I saw the newest waterfall in the garden take shape. For years afterwards, I thought I would become a landscape architect. I still love to garden.

Without fail, we always ate together after we were done with work. We would climb down rickety stairs into the basement, where Ben kept his “emergency pantry.” The shelves were lined with cans and cans of food, and he would choose one for our meal. Then, we would climb the wooden front stairs (even more rickety, the whole staircase leaned towards you) up to the kitchen and ate like we were camping. He asked me questions about school, baseball, and my brothers. And he was genuinely interested in my answers.

I saw Ben Lenz sporadically over the past 20 years, usually at my brother’s house. He remained as eccentric as ever, with stories to tell of his latest hiking expedition or special project he was working on. He always greeted me warmly, with his large hand firmly gripping mine as if to remind me: don’t forget where you came from. The last time I saw him he told a tale of a horse that had escaped from a barn: I don’t remember the details, but I remember his hearty guffaw and deep broad smile.

I didn’t know it then, but Ben Lenz taught me several life and work lessons that I still keep with me everyday:

  1. There’s no substitute for hard work
  2. Have a vision, but don’t be afraid to implement other people’s ideas
  3. There is deep joy to be had by getting your hands dirty with the earth
  4. After you work hard, make sure to eat
  5. Keep emergency supplies in the basement
  6. Eccentric is what makes you memorable
  7. Invest in young people: the impact you make will far surpass your expectations

Ben Lenz died on March 4, 2015. As my old friend Ted pointed out, the date of his passing sent one last message: march forth. I think he would have liked that as the epilogue to his life’s story.

SWAMI SAYS: Rest in peace, Ben Lenz. May your soul live on in all those you have touched, and may you find endless pandemonium in the great beyond.


It took me 25 years to meet Mickey Mouse

By now, hopefully you have heard the news — Punchbowl has been named the exclusive provider of digital invitations featuring Disney characters. To say I’m excited would be a gross understatement.


This is the kind of deal that doesn’t come easily and requires many, many meetings. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had countless phone calls and exchanged numerous emails with the folks at Disney.  I’ve gotten to know my counterpart at Disney very well through this process. And yet, I’ve never met him.

I’ve seen a picture of him online, and I’m sure he’s seen mine. We’re connected on LinkedIn, I have his cell phone number, and I know some details about his family. In the past few days, I’ve been on the phone with him several times per day as we prepared to launch this partnership. But we’ve never shook hands, shared a meal, or looked each other in the eyes. This significant deal was completed without ever meeting face to face. Like many people I do business with these days, neither of us felt the burning need to get together. Oh, we tried a few times. The latest attempt was when I was in Southern California for a conference. He even gave me a great tip about flying out of Long Beach instead of LAX. But our schedules didn’t align and I wasn’t able to stick around an extra day. “That’s ok,” we both agreed, we’ll catch each other next time.

Perhaps it’s fitting, because it took me 25 years to meet Mickey Mouse. Unlike many kids in America, I never had the opportunity to go to Disney World or Disneyland as a child. Of course I loved all of the characters, but growing up in a middle-class family with six kids it wasn’t practical to go on a Disney vacation. Many of my friends went, but I grew up without seeing the live Disney experience. That didn’t quell my desire to go.

In my mid 20s, I was living on the West Coast and my girlfriend (now wife) and I took a trip to Disneyland. I loved it. I’ll never forget seeing the Muppet Studios or flying on the California Dreamin’ ride (I even bought the soundtrack). A few years later, I went to visit my family in Orlando and had the opportunity to visit Disney World. I loved Epcot, the parades, and the rides. And I even got to meet Mickey Mouse up close and personal.

I hope it doesn’t take 25 years for me to meet the person at Disney who helped make this deal happen. As I’ve told him numerous times, I wanted this deal badly, and I did everything I could to get it done. In the new world of online business, he didn’t need to meet me to know that I am who I appear to be online. I’m a passionate entrepreneur who loves hard work and doesn’t like excuses. And I didn’t need to meet him to understand that he was looking for a great partnership with a company that has a best-in-class product and team. Together, we learned everything about each other without the need to meet face to face.

SWAMI SAYS: Big deals can happen between companies even if you never meet face to face with your counterpart. So it’s more important than ever to make sure that your digital persona matches who you really are in-person. In this day and age of business online, it’s a whole new world. It’s a magical world, where when you wish upon a star, sometimes dreams do come true. Check out the new Disney Digital Invitation Collection.

How to manage your startup without fear

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago, and he was telling me about the culture at his job. Apparently, one of the employees was getting reprimanded for spending time on non work-related sites during the day. How did they know? Apparently, they actually monitor your internet usage during the day. Yep, big brother is watching.

And that’s not all… at the same office, one of the employees got a call from daycare that her kid was sick. Although it was 3:30pm, she left to go pick up her child. When she told her boss that she was leaving early, her boss told her that her pay that day would be cut by two hours for leaving early. How compassionate!

These two examples remind me of how ineffective it is to manage your employees using fear. I’ve worked for bosses where it felt like they were watching my every move. In my opinion, a few things happen when you manage this way: (more…)

How to spend Venture Capital money

So you landed Venture Capital money for your start-up? Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself. Now comes the next hard part. How do you spend all of that money?

Once it hits the bank account, as a start-up CEO, you need to start thinking like a VC. So here are a few suggestions about how to start spending those hot, steaming piles of cash: (more…)

Don’t hire a new employee until you feel the pain

When you are starting a company and raising capital, it’s natural to think about your hiring plan. As you create financials, you’ll try to predict how many hires you need at each stage of the company and try to show a reasonable ramp of building your team. But as practical matter, how do you make the decision of when to hire for a position? Just because your plan says that you should hire a Marketing person in September of year 2, does that mean you should? I don’t think so. (more…)

How to know when it is time to walk away

Note: This is the second in a series about the University of Rochester Stingers — a group I founded in the fall of 1994. The first part of the series is called “University of Rochester Stingers: my first start-up.”

Part III: You gotta know when to fold them, know when to walk away….

Stress can do crazy things to your body. I learned that lesson the hard way in early December of 1995. I was sick — and not just run-of-the-mill sick. I had a very bad case of pneumonia, and I was absolutely miserable. I spent a few nights in the Student Health Center, and if I didn’t recover in 48 hours, I was going to have to leave school. Thankfully, it never came to that, but I was down and out for more than a week. (more…)

Get the right people on the bus

bus_cartoon_tiltNote: This is the second in a series about the University of Rochester Stingers — a group I founded in the fall of 1994. The first part of the series is called “University of Rochester Stingers: my first start-up.”

Part II: The most important lesson I learned starting the Stingers

In the beginning of the 1995 academic year, things were really going pretty well for me. I was a senior on campus, lived in single dorm room close to the center of campus (Crosby), had a great girlfriend (now wife), and I was leading the new group I created called the Stingers. (more…)

Everything can’t be the #1 Priority

Over the years, I’ve been on the receiving end of a slew of feature requests from our customers, my friends & family, our employees, our partners, and our investors. It’s fascinating to hear from all of the various people. Each person explains why they believe that the feature they suggested should be the most important priority for Punchbowl. Everyone has “must-have” features or functionality, and everyone has items that they consider the #1 priority.

Here’s the problem: everything can’t be the #1 priority. (more…)

Rocks, Pebbles, Sand

jar of rocksThere is an old story about a teacher who shows his class a glass jar. The teacher asks the class: “If I fill this jar with 3 large rocks, will it be full?” The class looks at the large rocks and comes to the conclusion that the rocks will indeed fill the jar.

So the teacher takes the three large rocks and places them in the jar. Then he takes out a large box full of pebbles. Once again, he asks the class: “If I add all of the pebbles to the jar, will it be full?” The class looks at the pebbles and concludes that the jar will be indeed be full once the pebbles are added. “You can’t fool us again,” they all say. (more…)

Build culture with team offsites

From the early days of Punchbowl, we’ve had outings as a team. We didn’t have an office, so once a month we would get together at my house to discuss the product and brainstorm about the future. After we spent the morning together, we would head out to have lunch. Once in a while, we would go out and do something after lunch. We called these days “Punchbowl Pow-wows” and they were an important part of establishing the culture at the company. (more…)