Monday, May 29, 2023

A Little Bit Better

Entropy is a bitch, to put it lightly. As a business owner, I've learned absolutely everything will eventually break. As a leaseholder of a corporate owned property, I've also learned when it breaks, I'm usually contractually bound to fix it, rather than the landlord. I've replaced the usual things, like carpet and light fixtures, but also doors, toilets, and even sprinkler systems. If it can break, I will eventually need to replace it. This is also true in my RV experience.

My RV is built to the highest RV standards, which is a shockingly low standard, to be frank. It comes with a one year warranty that's so onerous to exercise, I usually just replace broken items myself. What I've learned working on the RV, but also on my Jeep and my business property, is not to just blanket replace junk parts, but to make each replacement an improvement. Spend a little more, do a little more, to make it a little bit better. Just a little, because you can go nuts, which was my downfall with my Jeep. 

On the highway through Sinaloa to Mazatlan, my rear overhead cabinet fell apart. It was a bit overloaded with my sons computer gear, and the rear of the trailer gets the brunt of the abuse. We asked at the RV park if there was someone who could fix it, and was surprised to learn a 20 year RV repair veteran lived in the park. Eric from Manitoba repaired my cabinet and reinforced it with extra wood, RV epoxy, and his staple gun (the weapon of choice in RV repair). At one point a 200 pound Canadian was hanging from this overhead cabinet. "If this cabinet comes down, the roof is coming with it." Eric told me.

"A little bit better" requires paying attention to problems as they arise and having the resources to find an Eric from Manitoba to get the job done. My first car, bought when I was 19, was always broken until the day I sold it seven years later. I only had enough money to fix the things that kept it off the road. The idea I would fix everything was absurd. That car probably set me down the path to "a little bit better" on my personal war against entropy. In my business, it's important to set a tone of what we will tolerate and what requires attention. The wrong manager could let things go until you've got the equivalent of an old muscle car on a grad students budget.

A little bit better cabinet, thanks to Eric from Manitoba

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Power on the Road

When I researched working while traveling in Mexico in an RV, what I found was not hopeful. Travelers were generally miserable and they didn't stay long. They would come down and decide the facilities were not up to American RV park standards and they couldn't get work done. Their rigs were not set up for it. I heard stories of bad water, the unavailability to dump waste, and above all, bad power that could destroy an RVs sensitive electronics. 

For a while I researched three stage water filters, until I decided we would live off bottled water. Mexican water isn't that bad, really, mostly just different than American water in its microbial makeup. I fill my tanks, rather than connect to park water directly, and I use a simple single stage filter. I'm not going to ever drink from my tanks, so that's fine. We go through a couple gallons a week of bottled drinking water instead and use about 50 gallons a week of semi filtered water for general use.

WalMart 5 gallon water bottle with a lithium pump (which I haven't bothered using yet)

We've had no problems, so far, after five RV parks, in finding a place to dump tanks. A priority of the RV purchase was buying an RV with tanks large enough for extended travel. With easy availability of dump stations at RV parks, we tend to dump twice a week. I could go maybe five days without this option before our toilet would be inoperable. We've never come close to filling our gray kitchen and bathroom (shower and sink) tanks. The blank tank size is definitely the lowest common denominator in this system.

One of the tank monitor systems we're using

Dumping tanks, a twice a week job

Power is certainly an issue. I have a 50 amp coach, meaning it can run off two, 120 volt legs of a power connector. It can conceivably draw a lot of power and run both air conditioners, the microwave and a host of power hungry appliances. We have stayed in one RV park with a 50 amp receptacle. Most have 30 amp, and one had 15 amp. Expecting 15 amp to be the lowest common denominator, my RV custom electrical system is designed to run seamlessly on 15 amps. I've never changed it off that. Running one air conditioner I'm pretty much using 21 amps, beyond the 15 amp input (which is usually 9-11), so having a system that draws on my batteries is critical.

Example of janky 15 amp receptacle. It should look familiar. That white pipe is our sewer

I certainly didn't expect to spend $10,000 on an electrical system, it just kind of happened as we were building it. This is a five year plan for a series of trips, so I wanted to get this right. I knew I wanted a special inverter that had power assist. This means if I use more than those 15 amps, the inverter draws from battery power to supplement my needs. If the power went out, it would also draw on battery power seamlessly. It goes out a lot with my set up. With this in mind, and our large power needs, the battery bank grew larger and the solar panel install was informed by that capacity. All the work was done by a friend, with me assisting, and it is working flawlessly.

The electrical system, other than the 1,200 watts of solar panels

One of the design decisions I insisted on was a Hughes Power Watchdog, which monitors incoming power and prevents bad conditions from hitting your electrical system. Boy is the dog getting a workout! Every RV park in Mexico so far has a potentially dangerous "open ground" condition. I've seen no problems in the US, so far. My receptacle voltage tester will often tell me "Naw, don't plug into this." If I listened to my tester, I would have no park power anywhere I've been. Instead, I'll often think to myself, "Let the dog decide."

The dog is displeased

In every case the Watchdog has let the power through, and in every case, sometime during our stay, the Watchdog has stopped power coming through either because of a dangerous condition or an under-over voltage condition. It will cut power for 90 seconds, test again, and if it's alright, allow power through again. Bad power conditions are often like storms, as there's some sort of grid or RV park event occurring. Eventually the storm passes. This often happens at dawn when people wake up and turn on their air conditioners in the park. It's an unfortunate alarm clock on my phone as the notifications start rolling in from the Watchdog app.

There is a chance the Watchdog will get fried and there's an inexpensive $35 board that can be replaced if this happens. I brought one spare. Hopefully it lasts or I'll have no external power coming in. The inverter is key to power assist and running off grid. We've stayed two nights in 100 degree conditions without any outside power at all and three nights in more temperate conditions where the AC was only slightly used. That's pretty much our power limits running off solar with our six batteries. If the AC isn't used much, there are no limits to power and our limitation becomes tanks. As we getting into the more temperate Mexican Highlands, we should be more energy independent without AC. 

So this fancy, $10K system, supports a high end travel trailer full of electronics, yet I'm only running on 15 amps of RV park power, what you would see from a household extension cord. It is not enough to cover our needs, so the solar and lithium batteries supplements this. We're at 97% battery capacity right now (the watchdog is angry and the power is off) and we'll probably drop to as low as 65% as the day draws on and the AC is running. We're going out today so the system gets a break.

Our lowest power level after 2 days in 100 degree weather and no external power

Some of the gadgetry includes Starlink for fast Internet, which isn't working right now, due to a wiring issue (we're sharing one until the parts arrive). We tried to make it run off 12 volts instead of 120v and it stopped working. We think Starlink disabled the ability to do this, since both system stopped working at the same time after months of use.

The main consumer of power and the one who needs high speed Internet is this gamer I brought with me with his power hungry gaming laptop and accessories:

Typical 30 amp receptacles:

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Are We Having Fun Yet?

I remember when I first started my store, there was little time to analyze whether this was actually what I wanted to do. Existential questions are for the leisure class. When you're hard driving, you are focused on the thing directly in front of you and in some fuzzy way, the goal in the distance. There's not much better in life than that, in my opinion. In the moment is all there is. We had some time to relax last night and discuss how the trip was going, in the midst of our hard charging, RV style (very slow), down the coast.

What we discussed was a reminder of what we had originally decided:

  • The trip is compressed. I wanted six months. We have four. 
  • The season is wrong. This is the off season, and it's "off" because it's too damn hot driving through the desert. My buddy is having technical difficulties with his air conditioning that he didn't have in the US, and that is effecting our travel plans somewhat. The heat requires AC, the AC requires RV park power, RV park locations are limiting our travel options. My legs have about 100 bug bites and when we arrived at a new beach yesterday, a tropical paradise, I just wanted to sit inside and relax, rather than undergo another attack.
  • My rig is big. We knew my trailer would limit our options. His school bus is surprisingly maneuverable, agile, and takes up half the space. Still, I can park the trailer on hard packed sand on the beach, so we're mostly fine. With one household extension cord worth of power, the RV is a very nice home, regardless of where it is.
  • Our schedule is set. We have people flying in at two different times to meet up with us, creating deadlines. Deadlines create schedules. Schedules create stress. I really want this option in the future, but I don't want to race to meet people.
  • Learning. I'm still figuring out my rig and developing a routine. The trailer hitch is still a bear and I've learned not to disconnect, if we're not going to use the truck that day. That saves about 45 minutes, +/- 15 minutes something unusual happening with the hitch. Coming up with a routine for dumping tanks, understanding power, figuring out laundry and shopping patterns, is all ongoing. I had to deal with "sewer flies" in my black tank, a story for another time that involved a potentially dangerous concoction of bleach and human waste. I had to do an emergency dump.
  • Mistakes were made. My paperwork problems cost us a few days. We have avoided mechanical delays, thankfully. Last time I was in Mazatlan, our destination today, I had my Jeep fixed both on the way down and the way back up. Mazatlan, not surprising, is the Mexican city I'm most familiar with.

What we discovered from this discussion was this is a lot of damn work, but we're having an awful lot of fun. Everyone agrees. We are on the trip, but not in the trip. Our goal was to visit these magical towns, Pueblos Magicos, and we've managed to visit one, and sadly drive by around five (in the last couple days). Those five were an enormous pain in the ass to get to, which is part of the reason why this Pueblos program exists. To get people (Mexicans) to go out of their way to visit these gems.

Our current RV park has the jankiest of power receptacles (yet most reliable power)

Our next two stops are cities that will act as base camps for day trips into Pueblos Magicos, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. As I've mentioned, the cradle of Mexican civilization is the Central Highlands, so not surprisingly, the magical towns are clustered strongly in that region, where we are headed. We are on the trip, but that will be in the trip. I've been on the road for nearly three weeks, which is usually the entire length of a typical vacation. The idea that we're just starting now is exciting, frustrating, and a little daunting. We're looking forward to weeks of staying in one place.

If you're looking for a business parallel, I think it matches my experience with profitability. I worked for about five years, growing and expanding before finally becoming solidly profitable. That's a really long time to spend struggling in your life to get to zero. It's also a really exciting time to imagine possibilities for the future. That five years was not scratching and clawing while being undercapitalized, it was expanding and growing and creating a foundation. This trip is a bit like that. This is the hardest way to have that experience, but only if you look at the path towards it as something not part of it.

Driving with a trailer in Mexico

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Pushing Hard and Slowing Down

Yesterday, I was attempting to back the trailer into a spot on a sandy beach. Even attempting this on this beach seemed a bit foolish. The truck was in four wheel drive, but it took almost no throttle pressure to spin the tires and potentially dig into the sand. I went forwards, but I didn't have enough space, and couldn't get the trailer straight enough behind me. 

A worker at the facility was providing useless hand signals behind me, while my buddy was offering suggestions to one side. My son, who should be outside guiding me, decided to hang out in the air conditioned truck. It was 95 degrees, after a day of temperatures that ranged up to 107. I was still rattled from driving the treacherous libre roads, the free, two lane roads through pot hole filled, small farm towns. Up until then, it was all smooth but expensive toll roads. I wasn't getting anywhere with my backing up.

"You're having trouble because you're tired." That's what I needed to hear from my friend. We discussed ahead of time the biggest fear is the growing fatigue that comes from the daily grind of travel. These rigs are big and it doesn't take much lack of concentration to really screw up. Both my hands were sore, one with a blood blister from smashing it with a hammer, trying to get my hitch aligned, while the other was bruised from attempting to deal with the tank hoses. 

The clever plastic hose connectors work fine until they expand with the heat, then they become impossible to get on or off.  I should wear gloves, but it's too damn hot. No excuse, I know. These little things, thousands of miles of driving, blistering heat and dehydration, problems with the rigs, lead to big mistakes. "You're tired" is code for slow down. It's not a negative judgment, it's permission to give yourself a break.

I turned off my brain for a moment, listened to his instructions and got the trailer parked on the sandy beach. Later, over dinner on the patio overlooking the scene, we laughed about it. The truck was left connected to the trailer at an odd angle, the rear wheels dug in right before the point of no return. We joked about whether my winch cable was long enough to reach a palm tree about fifty feet away. Would I need my new traction boards? They use them for ambulances in Canadian winters, I explained, in my usual banter. Keep them handy, but definitely use four wheel drive low and put your rear locker on. We were recovering as we discussed the recovery.

My buddy also had one of those "you are tired" moments yesterday, as his bus air conditioning had stopped working, due to a power issue. It instigated a sort of fight or flight instinct. I must fix this now or drive to cooler weather, but cooler weather is three days away at least, at our pace. Maybe we up the pace; I need to get to the mountains. Upping the pace adds risk and doesn't solve the immediate problem. We took a break in a nearby restaurant and decompressed in the air conditioning. The solution was get to a nearby safe place for the night and regroup.

Every trip like this has this point. You might call it a low point, but it's just a point, in need of recognition. You are tired. Slow down. Take a break and regroup. I tipped over my Jeep a few years ago and there were a dozen mistakes made, all of which I could have taught in a class. But the root cause was I was tired after ten days of hard driving with little sleep. In a bad ass Jeep, you can almost will your way through obstacles, the technology is that good. But eventually you run out of tech and rely on your talent, or when you're tired, lack thereof. 

As we talked about whether the truck and trailer were stuck in the sand, we realized we needed a break. The bugs began attacking in earnest, ignoring the DEET we had just slathered ourselves in. This beach was not the paradise we wanted to stay in. It had terrible bugs, nothing to do nearby, a beach dog that nips your ankles if you don't pet it, and park power with open grounds (the Watch Dog will allow it). We would prefer to drive another day to a better beach resort in a bigger town. I call this town Topalabumpa, for it's ridiculous number of topas, or speed bumps. 

We would prefer a different location, but we are tired, exhausted perhaps, dehydrated most likely. I write this with the waves crashing in the background, while the sun rises, and the air conditioning cycles on for the first time today. I'm using that crappy, open ground, park power, with Starlink connecting me to the world. We will stay another day with nothing much to do. We're going to need more days like this in the future.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Adventure Setbacks

The first rule of adventure travel is you will have setbacks. This is a problem for most people, in that their adventure is during their vacation time, and who wants to have setbacks while on vacation? However, setbacks are often the most memorable part of an adventure. You can apply this to running a business too. 

A business is about risk and reward. Risk comes with setbacks and if you can't emotionally deal with the ups and downs, you're better off as an employee. It's the travel equivalent of a cruise.

The key with adventure travel is to expect setbacks and plan for the most likely problems. Doing research, planning for the unexpected, and having a budget for setbacks is helpful. Having a flexible schedule is also important. When I had a six month plan, everything was casual. Now I have a three month plan, with people flying in to join us on particular days in cities a thousand miles away. Deadlines are stressful, and it's why I've eliminated most of these time based stressors from my business.

In my case of getting a vehicle import permit, I worried about our import paperwork before I bought the truck. I researched the problem, decided it was an acceptable risk, and bought the truck anyway. Getting initially turned away from acquiring a permit felt like a repudiation of all that analysis, a bigger blow than say, being bumped from your plane seat. This too shall pass.

The result was manageable. We lost three days on this trip because of my paperwork problems along with a couple hundred dollars in fuel and lodging. Those three days are being borrowed from a stop at an RV water park, one day instead of four. If you had two weeks off, three days is a disaster. Three months? It's a minor setback. 

Again, in business, you can ameliorate setbacks with good strategies like proper capitalization and diversification. If a Magic set sucks, you are in a lot more trouble if Magic is 70% of your business than if it were 30% of your business (my case). A bad month for me right now means I dip into my cash reserves. 

Five years ago, on a similar trip, it meant I missed a Friday payroll and had to run it on Monday. If I waited until I had my cash reserve, I would never have taken that first amazing trip in my Jeep down to Honduras. I don't want to do trips like that anymore. You know why I haven't started a second business? Because I don't want to do businesses like that any more.

The setbacks are what makes a trip interesting. They get included in your mental highlight reel, even though they sucked in the moment. The suffering is stripped out in hindsight. If you ever watch travel channels on YouTube, you're probably waiting for the problems. How people deal with problems is entertaining and educational. The most boring thing in the world is watching people have stress free travel. My book is relatable to people not because of the charts and business plan data, but the stories that are interspersed between those chapters. The setbacks, the moments of loneliness, the unexpected, are what makes it interesting.

The setbacks are just beginning for this trip, as the RV parks get thin in Mexico as we head south. Really thin, to the point you often have one choice and you better hope it's available. We have no idea where we're going tonight. One RV park is in an old town and is too narrow to get into with my trailer, while another is larger, but appears to be closed for the season. We'll be at a WalMart this afternoon as a temporary stop point to figure it out. This problem is our size paradox, which I'm going to get into, just so you understand the adventure ahead.

The size paradox is we want rigs big enough to live in comfortably for months at a time, but the best sized vehicle for traveling around Mexico is probably a van. A van is something you live out of. Last night I slept in my comfy queen sized bed and right now I'm sitting in a recliner, drinking coffee from my coffee maker, next to a big fridge, while the AC is running. I could certainly push some cushions together to sleep, boil some water for a pour over, store my food in a dorm fridge, and sit in a lawn chair outside and watch the sun come up, but that gets old after months and I'm not getting any younger. I'm also bringing along my son with his own set of issues, and part of the deal is my companion (whoever it is in the future) will be comfortable.

All of this has business applications, of course. You take on the risk you're willing to tolerate. You put a line in the sand of how far you're willing before you change direction. There will be tremendous setbacks and unexpected problems, so be sure to have the time and capital on hand to weather them. You will remember 100 crazy stories for every record sales day. Create an environment you want to spend time in first and foremost. You will be living in it, perhaps longer than you expected. You should enjoy going to work each morning. I know I do, especially if it's in my recliner on the coast of Mexico.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Working on the Road

I looked at the UPS tracking for the truck title and although it was promised in a matter of days, the tracking said it would arrive in a week, completely scuttling our trip! Plan B was enacted. My son Rocco and I jumped in the truck and drove the 200 miles to the nearest California DMV office in El Centro. As we left, Google Maps said we would arrive around 4:40 pm, with DMV closing at 5pm. 

The border wait was about two minutes; record fast. The border agent asked how our trip was, and funny enough, I explained to him our permit situation. He wished us safe travels and waved us through. We skipped lunch, ate some trail mix in the truck and made it by 4:40 to get a copy of the vehicle registration, another acceptable method for proving ownership. We dipped back into Mexico for the night, staying in Mexicali, and headed back to our campground the next day through a series of small villages and a nature preserve. We were set!

We broke camp the day after and headed to the aduana 90 miles away in the middle of the desert, to get our temporary vehicle import permits. The worst case scenario reared its ugly head and we were initially denied because of the truck weight. It's a story that I won't bore you with, but the Mexican government has had this mistake on their books where they confuse a vehicle weight with its gross weight, it's total weight including what it can carry. 

My vehicle weight is within specs, but if you read the law wrong, which seems to happen about half the time, my truck is ineligible for temporary import. Thanks to my Spanish speaking friend, we managed to get approval from headquarters, about two and a half hours later. I find it astonishing this continues to happen since the problem began around 2015.

During all this drama, along with constant cooking and cleaning, as well as driving and technical issues having to do with towing and electricity, I'm still working. As the trip unfolded, I watched May's dismal sales unfold. It turns out May wasn't a good month for a lot of stores, and you always get that sinking feeling when it happens when you're away on a trip. I did what I could from the road, and thankfully I have a sales history to look back on, so I can say, May be that way.

I also have enough structure in our sales environment to know what's coming: A Ding & Dent sale (today), our first time vending at Kublacon (week 2), a Pokemon release (week 3), and a Magic release (week 4). Any of those events could go implode, but they'll all bring in sales to make May less dismal. Imagine if you didn't have structures like this in place. How many levers could you pull from the road? Not too many.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Boy Did I Eff Up

 What happened was...

As you may know, I'm traveling in Mexico for several months with my son and a good friend of mine. I'm towing my travel trailer with my Ford F350 Super Duty pickup. The truck is an important part of this story.  

I have a special binder that has been on many big road trips. It contains all of my relevant documents, often five or six copies, along with a memory stick with backup files. I take some pride in my organizational skills. It's my core competency, or was until today.

My biggest concern was getting a Temporary Import Permit from the Mexican authorities for the truck. There had been some one ton truck confusion in past years, and people were denied entry from around 2015-2017. The likelihood of confusion was high and it was a big anxiety point for me. I had all my relevant documents in order, except.

When it came time to provide copies of my truck registration, my registration was expired. I didn't forget the paperwork, or screw up documents, the registration has been expired since October. I didn't get a notification, which can happen with my screwy mail service, but it's on me to remember those things. I can't tell you how disappointed I am with myself, with so many months of planning. I screwed up pretty bad, and my companions are along for the ride.

The solution is to provide the original vehicle title, which unfortunately was in my safe back home, 1,200 miles away. While driving back to Puerto PeƱasco, 100 miles through the scorching desert, I went back and forth with my wife. She found the title in the safe where I left it, along with a credit card. She went to Fedex, who wanted a week to deliver it. Then UPS, where the credit card was declined (it's old, but not expired). 

Finally I sent her to my store to talk to my manager and pick up cash. There's a UPS store next door. That worked. Oh, and she got a tank of premium gas out of it as some compensation. That's a lot of yuppie food coupons on the counter. She deserves it though, thank you!

So now we're back in the RV park where we started this morning, after driving 150 miles today. We'll be here for three days at least, waiting for the UPS delivery of the vehicle title. Then it's back to the middle of the desert where the very kind (and cute) customs agent will hopefully approve my vehicle import permits. 

Friday, May 5, 2023

What Is Best In Life? ChatGPT and Future Writing

I had an idea. I'm nothing, if not prolific in my writing. What if I just let ChatGPT write my blog posts, using my past writing as an example? Would it even know who I am? Would it spew nonsense? Does this make me sound like an irredeemable narcissist? Let's give it a shot:

Using Gary Ray's writing, what are the three most important elements of owning a game store?

In his writing, Gary Ray highlights several important elements of owning a game store. Based on his perspective, the three most important elements are:

  1. Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment: According to Gary Ray, creating a welcoming environment is essential for any game store owner. This means not only providing a comfortable and safe space for customers but also making sure that everyone feels included and valued. It requires actively promoting a culture of respect and kindness, and working to ensure that everyone feels like they belong
  2. Building a community: Another key element of owning a game store, according to Gary Ray, is building a community of like-minded individuals who share a passion for games. This involves not just providing a physical space for people to come together but also facilitating connections and friendships between customers. Building a community requires creating opportunities for socializing and organizing events that encourage people to get to know one another.
  3. Embracing change: Finally, Gary Ray emphasizes the importance of being adaptable and open to change as a game store owner. He notes that the industry is constantly evolving, and that staying ahead of trends and remaining flexible is essential for success. This means being willing to try new things, experimenting with different products and services, and always looking for ways to improve and grow the business.
You probably didn't learn anything, but it's not a bad start.