Audio Version 9’30”
You Don’t Have To Be Cool
Wish you had a huge following? A public figure known and respected by thousands of people?
All of whom pay money each year? Sounds cool.
But deep down we know it takes charisma, good looks and a limitless urge for pushy self-promotion. I don’t have that, and maybe you don’t either.
So this week, a story of how a quiet, modest guy named Don broke that stereotype and drew tens of thousands to his vision.
Though cheerful and polite, he hated the hustle. He had a deep dread of small talk, networking events, and unexpected visitors.
He was happiest drinking tea and making handwritten plans at his desk.
He made many plans. Most never got beyond that desk.
Phase 1: The Space Food Sticks Guy
Don’s was an eccentric career arc. He began as a far north Queensland travelling sales rep, selling canned luncheon meat to general stores. Hot product back then.
Side-hustle: writing jazz reviews for the Courier Mail.
Next: importer of thrilling new synthetic foods from the US. He introduced Australians to some wild-ass variations on food as they knew it. Spray-pack cake frosting. Donuts in a can, like tennis balls.
Space Food Sticks! Kids wanted to be an astronaut. They went nuts for these dehydrated choc-snacks with the exact texture of car tyres.
Phase 2: The Eco-Evangelist
Despite his business roots, Don was a guy with a conscience. Inequality bugged him a lot. He put the job on hold and spent a year as a volunteer running the Freedom From Hunger doorknock campaign.
Waste horrified him. It was the peak pollution era. Factories pumped toxins straight into the river.
The backyard incinerator was king, casting a grimy pall across the city each Sunday.
So Don created one of Australia’s earliest paper recycling programs, a decade before councils did it.
His entire suburb put out their papers and magazines, twine-bound, collected once a month by volunteers from the local school.
An army of parents did the sorting at the school depot. There was a special pile of items marked not for recycling. Mainly the … ahem … gentlemens’ interests magazines, a genre then at its peak. Those mags found new homes in sock-drawers all over the suburb.
Above all the projects, Don loved motorhomes.
Right from the early days when they were all VW Kombi vans piloted by hippie freaks. He grew a beard, pulled his kids out of school for periods of up to six months, and took them to see the world at ground level.
He was not bothered by other people’s suburban expectations.
Phase 3: Never Too Late To Start New Things
After his kids left home, Don pretty much stopped working. But no golf or gardening for him.
He had a big idea: a national club for his fellow motorhomers. He’d discovered a similar one on his US travels.
Armed only with a typewriter, stamps and a ledger book – a computer was beyond the budget – the Campervan & Motorhome Club Of Australia was born.
At first a small local gathering, then bigger ones. Local chapters around the country. Annual rallies in regional towns, thousands of motorhomers camped together for a fortnight.
Over a few decades it became a major commercial operation. Don gradually stepped back as it got big enough for paid staff, their head office in a building they own. They own their own network of motorhome parks across the country.
Don lived to see the CMCA get to 65,000 paying members.
Lesson 1: Know How Tribes Work
If you want to put a posse together, you’d better know deep down how they think.
Going for the biggest potential market is a rookie error.
The club was for motorhomes. To an outsider, caravans would seem to be a natural part of that. But if you know that world, motorhome owners think caravans suck.
Pick almost any war through history. There is no dislike so deep as that of near-identical groups who have found some minor difference to disagree on.
Not being caravanners was an essential motorhomer badge of identity, and it drew them together.
Management consultants would say: merge motorhomers and caravanners together. You’ll get twice the revenue PLUS efficiencies.
You could also try to re-unite Ireland, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Lesson 2: Let The People Be Heard
Don wasn’t the power-wielding sort. Doesn’t work with volunteers.
He had the vision though. Countless subcommittees would come up with ideas as the club grew. Mostly good.
Some ideas were well-meant but terrible. People designing their own wretched logos, that kind of thing.
He was very patient letting everyone have their say, and steering them away from those ideas. A big part of business, and clubs, is letting people feel heard.
Instant rejection builds fatal levels of resentment.
Lesson 3: Find Productive Partnerships
Almost all the club members find it a rewarding community experience that they gladly pay for.
But that’s not what got most of them through the door.
It was the club striking a deal with an insurance company. Members got a discount bigger than their club subscription, so it made no sense to not join.
Finding partnership deals where everyone wins helps a lot.
Lesson 4: Low Lifestyle Costs = Freedom
Building his dream was all-consuming. Don created the time and freedom by not wasting money in his personal life.
Travel is a good investment. Clothes: not so much.
He mostly lived in a beloved pair of green Stubbies shorts that were very ready for the bin. Frayed legs, waist elastic dead.
Replacement cost: $15 at Lowes. Too extravagant.
His wife fixed the waist using those adjustable tabs you see on tuxedo pants. In jaunty tartan fabric.
You just know hipsters would want them bad.
You may say tight-arse. He would say: symbol of my freedom.
Phase 4: The Governor Wants A Word
At the annual rallies, Don and his wife were mobbed like royalty. Thousands gathered, and everyone wanted a word.
He and his wife always did the big opening speech onstage.
But was so freaked out by all the attention that he’d hide in his van for hours, pretending he had important phone calls. His wife, an Olympic-level chat champion, acted as his defence shield.
So it was mixed feelings in 2012 when he was awarded an Order Of Australia Medal.
Public recognition of the club: he was delighted.
Getting out of the Stubbies and travelling to Sydney for a fancy-ass presentation ceremony and cocktail party? Not his cup of tea at all.
Pop the medal in the mail, he was definitely not going.
In his mind, it was not about him.
It took one of his kids two hours on the phone to talk him into the trip, fielding a litany of objections.
He found a suit at the back of the wardrobe, the first time he had worn one in decades.
He made it to Government House, medal pinned on by the amazing Governor Professor Marie Bashir.
He looked like an absolute king.
You probably already guessed Don was my dad.
He was lifelong inspiration that you can create great things without being a showpony.
Cancer got him in the end. We were all standing around his bed when he went, at home like he wanted, family re-united from around the world.
Pretty much the last thing he heard was me reading him a similar story to this I wrote for his beloved club magazine.
He went out knowing how much he was loved. How much his club changed the lives of so many people. And his essential lessons that have made his family’s life so much richer.
Regular readers will detect some familiar themes.
Mind you I would have just bought a new pair of shorts.
The beloved green Stubbies went in the coffin, along with a model VW campervan. Like a milder version of bikie club colours.
Thanks for everything Dad, love you mate.
I started this story back in March, to mark the fifth anniversary of Dad leaving us. That was the week COVID shutdowns kicked off, so it wasn’t the time. Fathers Day week seems the next best option.
Shout out to all dads for your inspirational work, it really does live on way beyond you.
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Also if you liked this why not read 5 Things I Learned At Client University.