Holding up a little yellow scratch pad of sketches to the Skype camera, Jeff Sinelli excitedly shared some notes on a new idea to expand his restaurant’s brand that he and his team had in R&D.
“I can’t talk too much about this right now, but it’s always exciting to be on the cutting edge of what’s up-and-coming in the sandwich industry.” The smile on his face beamed joy and a boyish curiosity that intrigued me. His black Which Wich polo shirt, blue jeans, clean-shaven face, and no-nonsense haircut were a remarkable representation of how his outspoken commitment to simplicity gave him a lot more brain space for innovation. For the next half an hour of our famous RTC Author kick-off call, we talked about everything from living in Texas to Jeff’s new project with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to conscious capitalism, his love for his life, his family, and on top of it all, how excited he was to share his lessons—the places he learned, tripped and fell, and got up stronger and more determined—so that others might be able to “shortcut” their road to success by avoiding his mistakes.
Jeff’s energy was contagious – apart from the fact that his Skype camera faced his side profile, and the screen upon which our team was laid out for our call was on the other side of the room, so I could only see one side of him as he stared at all of us. I could see how full of life this man was as he moved with such purpose, and it was clear just how passionate he was about helping people as his voice caught in his throat when he talked about giving back to those who needed it. In that short thirty-minute call, I could see that his drive to expand his brand, and quite simply, make the best sandwiches in the world, were only a few drops of the cannon-ball-sized splash he was already making in the world.
After debriefing with the team, I communicated to them just how certain (and grateful) I was that I had been the first choice to work on Jeff’s book. At the time (early February of 2014), I was nearing the end of writing a book with two other entrepreneurs—Joe Schmidt and Tom Lotrecchiano—and I was also launching into an intense writing coaching project with the creative entrepreneur who auctioned off his last name (twice): Jason Zook (Jason was then known as Jason SurfrApp, and the year before that, he was known as Jason Headsetsdotcom). Somehow, I felt (and still do!) called and inspired by these innovative entrepreneurs, and I knew working with Jeff would be an experience that would intensely benefit us both.
Let’s fast forward to our annual RTC spring retreat at the end of March, only a month and a half later. Normally, as a distributed team, we gather (at minimum) twice a year to connect with one another. We find that when we do this, it really enlivens our relationships and drives our common passion and values, and that extends outward to the client relationships we maintain. The twist with our retreat this spring would be that it would be an Author Retreat combined with the staff retreat. We would, together, embark on team-building, trust exercises, and straight-up roughing it in the desert while trying to go to that deep place we aim to go when we get together as a staff.
At the time of the retreat, I was still living in Hawaii, and only one week after the retreat, my younger sister was to be married in Los Angeles (not too far from Joshua Tree), so I combined the RTC retreat with my L.A.-wedding-travel. But believe me when I say that it’s really hard to pack—from Hawaii—for a camping trip in the high desert, a week home with my parents and sister in the bitter cold of a Southern California springtime (brrrr), and then my younger sister’s wedding (which, I might add, was 100% Pinterest Approved. #officially). Dare I say it: I arrived at the retreat very late at night that first night . . . and I was woefully unprepared. (Quick shout-out to one of our authors and the trip organizer, Mark Cripe, whose spare jacket, sleeping bag, and Marine Corps background saved me from hypothermia!)
Yes, I knew we were sleeping in tents. I knew there were to be rock-climbing and fireside talks involved. And yet, there I was, scrambling over boulders in the only closed-toed shoes I had thought to bring: my rainbow-cheetah Bobs (a knock-off of Tom’s shoes). Side note—they’re not great for any real activity other than maybe mall-strolling or going to the door to pay the pizza delivery guy. My “warmth” preparedness consisted of several hoodies that I still owned (thankfully), some leggings for underneath my blue jeans, a last-minute gas station beanie purchase, and my pink Snuggie. That first night in my tent in the 40-degree high desert didn’t prove to be the best sleep I’d ever gotten, if you catch my drift.
The next morning, I crawled out of my tent, bleary-eyed, caffeine-hunting, already grimy, shivering, and unsure of how I would put on my happy face for our authors.
And yet, as I dusted through the dirt to the coffee station, rubbing my eyes and trying to make sense of why everyone was so jolly (it appeared I’d overslept and everyone else had already consumed their coffee), I was intercepted by Katie, our Executive Editor.
“Did you meet Jeff yet?” She beamed her morning smile at me, (which, if you must know, is a thing that extends beyond early morning phone calls and into real life) and it pierced my foggy brain as she rubbed my upper arm and we made eye contact.
“Jeff Sinelli? No, I didn’t think he was getting here until—”
“Is this Lizzie?” Jeff called from about twenty feet away. Having played professional lacrosse long before his current business, Which Wich, came to life, it made sense that his enormous strides caught up to us before I knew what was happening (remember: no coffee yet). Apparently, Katie had nodded in affirmation because the next thing I knew, I was swallowed in a full Sinelli-hug. A real, wrap-around, warm, hug from this author whom I’d been interviewing on the phone twice a week for the previous six weeks. It was a moment I will never forget.
I did end up finding my coffee after that genuine connection, but I felt totally buzzy from that moment, almost like I didn’t actually need my coffee after all. It felt like the excitement I’d seen on our first kick-off call, that carried through the phone lines from Dallas to Hawaii on our calls . . . it was real.
Jeff always spoke clearly and fast. The things he’d learned from childhood onward about human connection, enthusiasm, determination, and business were lessons that I, myself, absorbed as I interviewed him each week. This was a man who was full of a contagious zeal for life, and after that retreat—after tracking him, blindfolded, over boulders (in my rainbow cheetah shoes) and working on a challenging memory exercise together—I knew we could find a way to make his book stand out above his peers’ books. We shared intimate moments of insight—about his book and about life, in general—around the campfire, beneath the crisp, blue, desert sky (and frigid air), and as we drank coffee at the morning picnic breakfast table. In short, I was once again reminded of how getting together was an invaluable experience for not only the staff at RTC, but for our writer-author relationships, and also for our authors themselves.
Then, after some incredible momentum and about nine chapters complete, Jeff needed a break. He didn’t say why, or just what he’d be doing, or for how long ... but he needed to step away. When this happens with an author, there’s usually a flag somewhere that we overlooked, but after having that conversation with Katie and Corey, we were having a hard time identifying whether there had been a flag at all.
But when Jeff resurfaced months later, he connected with Corey at a conference and was finally able to articulate why he had needed the space he took. In sum, Jeff didn’t realize how deep we were going to go, how honest he was going to have to be about what had shaped him as a person and an entrepreneur, and how much he’d have to balance that new vulnerable space with his family life and running a fast-growing restaurant chain.
After the step-away and re-connection, Jeff had had the time to introspectively see that the books and brands that were making the kinds of positive change in the world he wanted to make were few and far between. He realized that the “business” books in his realm didn’t do anything to show the reader how deepening their own understanding of their importance in the world would actually change the world . . . and he wanted to do that. He remembered our whole-team connection at Joshua Tree, how we had committed our support to him and his passion, and he realized that re-engaging in book-writing meant re-immersing himself in the depth of his story—which was where the wisdom and experience were situated . . . as uncomfortable as that might be at times.
So, now that we’ve dived back into Jeff’s manuscript, I can’t help but be re-inspired by his story, his bravery in telling it (as it is with all of our authors), and his passion for helping others.
And I can’t help but champion the fact that when we get to meet our authors in person, whether it be for a 12-hour interview stretch at a swanky hotel or wrapped in a Snuggie around a campfire in the desert, it helps them see that we really do practice what we preach. We value vulnerability and honesty as highly as we value integrity and trust—and these are the things upon which our company was built. When all sides—the editor and the author and the support staff—can get a felt sense of the authenticity and commitment in a project, we can rally to overcome just about any setback that may arise in the intricate world of storytelling.
Because it’s been proven time and time again with almost every one of our authors: once those hurdles are jumped, together, we really can change the world.