It was 2002, and we were sitting in the Pennsylvania Hotel across from Penn Station. I was 22. Across the table from me was the head of IT security for the FAA, and my boss, Tom Yon. We ordered soup. I’d made a million cold calls, and gotten this meeting. In fact, the meeting only happened because he’d come to NY for the Dog Show. I hoped no one asked me to buy lunch, because I definitely couldn’t afford it. I wasn’t sure my boss could either.
That meeting was eye-opening. The start-up I was working for sold Iris Scanners for Panasonic and LG, and I thought the FAA could use these devices in the cockpits. Turned out that the FAA knew the devices existed, and had tested them. Thoroughly. They’d removed the eyes of dying soldiers, and tested them by holding them up to the scanner. But the cameras detected heat, so that didn’t work. Next, they tried inserting the eye into another person’s eye socket. They had tested these scanners thoroughly. They didn’t need us.
Tom Yon, my boss, was someone I worked for selling Nextel mobile devices in 2001, when I was 21. He was 28. When I first started working there, he told me about how he’d started as a punk kid in Elizabeth with nothing, and achieved one of his life-long goals the year prior. Shortly after I started, Tom left to start his own tech security firm, and I’d gone with him. I gained some really valuable experience selling directly to businesses, working tradeshows, and bootstrapping. Tom also tried to be a friend to me, which was confusing, because I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be friends with your boss. I’m still pretty sure you’re not supposed to be friends with your boss, (and I REALLY like my current manager).Tom would invite me over for Chinese takeout of Won-Ton soup and white rice – even with no money, he was satisfied with the simple things. I learned from him that $5 could take you a long way if you were focused on the right things.
Eventually I left the start-up because I wasn’t making any money. I was getting paid $200 week to make cold calls, build relationships, and implement the technology. $200/week isn’t much, and the commission was based on an extremely long sales cycle. By the end of 2002, I needed to move on. The company was relocating further south, and I couldn’t commute even further for such a small amount of money. Of course, I didn’t stay in touch.
Five years later, in 2007, I had just landed a new job. My initial training involved some travel, so I was sitting in an airport in Florida, about to fly home. I’d had a couple of beers, was feeling really good, and I decided to make some phone calls. My first call was to my boss two jobs ago, Tom Yon. I dialed the 800 number, and someone answered on speakerphone. I wasn’t surprised there wasn’t a receptionist. The person who answered on speakerphone was the CEO. He’d joined after I’d left, so we’d never met. I asked to speak to Tom. The CEO responded with the worst two words I’ve ever heard on a phone call. “He’s deceased. Who’s calling, please?”
Did you ever ask a person to repeat themselves, knowing that you heard them the first time? That’s what I did. Obviously, the answer hadn’t changed.
I was put through to the VP of Marketing, who I knew very well. He’s an extremely talented person, and has to his credit coming up with the slogan “I’ve fallen! And I can’t get up!” for the LifeAlert product designed for senior citizens who couldn’t get to the phone. He told me that Tom had gradually reached a point where he was ready to branch out on his own, left to start a consulting company, and had died unexpectedly leaving a young son. I hung up feeling numb.
In 2010, it occurred to me to find his wife on Facebook. I found her, and although she didn’t remember me, I sent her a couple of stories including the one I wrote at the beginning of this post. She messaged me back and said:
“I like to hear stories about Tommy from others. It kind of keeps his memory alive. He died at the age of 34 from a blood clot. Always remember life is short. That’s what I learned from him. He was a great friend, father, and husband and I still to this day have people searching for him. Tell me more stories if you think of them. I really miss him.”
What can you say in response that? All the training you get in school, on the job – none of it prepares you for this kind of situation. When I think back to what I learned from Tom, it’s that anyone can accomplish anything, if they ignore the people and voices telling them why they can’t.
I learned that if you have a relationship with someone, even if it’s professional, don’t just let it go by the wayside – that person might not be there next time you want to talk.
Should you call that person today? Yes. Pick up the phone and do it. You’ll be glad you did.