THE BLOG
01/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 120% Solution

Reprinted with permission from Jason"s email list

Many intelligent people I've been speaking with believe that the economic crisis facing our country today is our biggest challenge since America's inception. Intelligent folks can argue the relative risks we faced when confronted with the Civil War, Great Depression, Vietnam, two World Wars and the New Millennium Economic Crisis (what I'm calling what we're going through today), but there is no debating that the current situation is dire.

Extremely dire.

Huge companies are closing or imploding and layoffs are skyrocketing; debt levels and savings are hitting new highs and lows, respectively. It's so bad that even the most intelligent economic minds in the world can't explain what is happening, and almost everything our government does seems ineffective. We're deep into uncharted waters and we don't have a navigator.

Oh yeah, it's going to get worse.

I've been thinking a lot of what got us into this mess and how we might be able to get out of it. What follows are my extremely basic thoughts on what has caused the problem and what the solution might be. These ideas are simple, but problems and solutions typically are. Truth be told, knowing what went wrong and how to fix it is the easy part -- it's implementing the solution that's hard.

There is no silver bullet and my hope here is not to convince you I have one. Instead, my hope is that this missive starts a discussion amongst considered people about how we move our country forward.

The 20% Problem
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When I first learned of Google's 20% time, hours reserved for engineers to pursue technology projects they find personally rewarding, I thought to myself: "Gosh, that's brilliantly self-indulgent." Google's 20% time has served as a way for the company to recruit and inspire some of the greatest minds in our industry.

It has served them well. Who wouldn't want to work for a company that essentially says "do what ever you want every Friday!" However, using 20% of your resources to pursue random projects is highly inefficient. While it it might work well for a company like Google, with absurd margins and free cash flow, it's a fairly crazy strategy for any normal company -- or country -- to employ.*

Well, our entire country has been taking 20% time for at least the past five years. It's time for us, just as The Mighty Google did recently according to the Wall Street Journal, to reconsider.

We've overspent, taken expensive vacations, built absurd homes (in both scale and quantity), run our savings into the ground and skyrocketed our debt to record levels. Our addiction to consumption and our sense of entitlement have killed us. Sure, many of us have lived conservatively, working hard without debt. But, on average, we've:
  1. Spent well over 20% more than we should have on the price of homes.
  2. Built homes that are well over 20% larger than they need to be.
  3. Purchased 20% more consumer electronics than we needed. (In my case, 300%).
  4. Extended home ownership rates 20% beyond where they should be (to the mid-to-high risk credit folks).
  5. Gotten 20% fatter than we should be.
The orgy of overspending is over and it's time to move on.

Who's to blame for all this?

Was it the greedy Wall Street Bankers who engineered this huge mess? Yes.

Was it the mid-level mortgage broker pushing high-risk mortgages on clients who should have never had a mortgage to begin with? Yes.

Was it the over-reaching consumer who got in over her head and didn't research and question the mortgage she was signing? Yes.

Was it the government that didn't regulate all the bad actors in this tragedy? Yes.

There's plenty of blame to go around, but we've got to get past the blame stage and into the solution phase. (Holding the folks responsible who behaved criminally, of course. I predict there will be
many white-collar perp walks on CNBC next year, just as there were in 2002.)

* Note: I'm not saying Google's is to blame for any of this, or that 20% time was a bad idea for them. Their 20% time is simply what lead me to thinking about what's wrong with our country. I think Google's a brilliant company, filled with brilliant people who have done brilliant things. That being said, they do need to get more focused -- and they clearly are.

The 120% Solution
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If we're going to have any chance of bringing America back to greatness, we're all going to have to work 20% more than we have been.

I'm suggesting that, until America takes care of its debt, untangles the housing mess and gets unemployment under control, we all commit to working six days a week. Yep, move the standard 35-40 hour work week right up to 48 hours.

For me and my team, this is a non-issue, since we only hire folks who are looking to absolutely kill it, love what they do and don't consider it a job. Of course, positions at a startup company, where stock options make for a great reward if we hit a home run, have certain advantages over normal day jobs. In the technology industry, a 48 hour work week would be, for most, a vacation.

It was our collective sloth, consumption and sense of entitlement that got us into this mess, and the only thing that will get us out of will be lots of hard work.

If you've got a good job, you should bust your butt to make your company as successful and profitable as possible. That way, salaries can increase, jobs can be created and your products and services become so world class, the phrase "Made in America" will come to mean something other than "not worth buying."

If you're working at a government job, you should be putting in extra hours to reduce government spending. Come in this weekend and make the government more efficient. (Yes, I just told a government worker to come in on Saturday.)

If you've got credit card debt, pay it down if you can.

If you've got a mortgage, pay it off if you can.

If you work in the service industry, try to work 20% faster and come up with ideas to make your team more efficient. (Side note: I was in Japan recently and was amazed at the personal productivity of each
individual when compared to the U.S. workers.)

If you're a rich person looking to take a couple of years off, don't. Instead, start a company that creates an amazingly innovative product that the world -- not just the United States -- needs. Set the goal of
trying to employ 100 Americans.

Seriously, the affluent folks in this country should start businesses now. Drag your ass out of bed and try to make this country great again. It's this country that made you affluent. Yeah, you're rich and you don't need to work, we know. Who cares? Your country needs you right now! Sell your second or third home and start a company!

If you're affluent and you can't start a company then angel invest in a bunch of smart, hard working folks at the very least.

If you're a college student thinking of getting trashed this weekend, or taking a year off, don't. Instead, take an extra class or two, do an internship at a company or get a graduate degree in engineering.

If you're in high school, go work at your parents office or start an online business. (You would be surprised at how many high school students email me every week to share with me their online businesses that make $2-3k a month.)

If you're a lazy and bitter worker who has been screwed by the system, swallow your pride and stop trying to stick it to everyone. Double down and take pride in your work effort, even if your boss is a
complete jerk.

If you're the complete jerk of a boss, check yourself and realize that the folks working for you need the job, and that if everyone doesn't get their act together, we're all going to be out of work. (This is directed specifically at the dysfunctional automakers and airlines, which seem to spend more effort fighting their customers and each other than they do taking on their global competitors!)

Everyone must step up, and we've got to do it now. I've been traveling around the world the past two years, and I can tell you that the work ethic, attitude and productivity of American workers -- white and blue collar -- is half of what I've seen in countries like Japan, China, and Korea.

We're not going to get our asses kicked. We're in the process of getting our asses kicked!

Good debt vs. Bad debt
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One quick point of clarification around debt: While I am advocating everyone pay down-and, in fact, stop-the debt associated with unnecessary consumption, I'm very much in favor of investment in new companies, ideas and eduction. If we're going to take on any more debt, it should into things that pay back at least two dollars for every one dollar invested.

Investment in new technology, technical training, new companies, energy independence, mass transit, high-speed trains, cheap broadband and education are critical in getting us out of this mess.

I'm not against debt; I'm against debt that is wasted. Let's invest in our future.

In summary
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What made America great was our ability to innovate and create world-class products, ideas and services that people around the globe fell in love with and wanted for themselves.

From health care to human rights, from democracy to dishwashers, from windshield wipers to the World Wide Web, from search engines to soda pop, we've accomplished so much by dreaming and rolling up our sleeves.

We need to put down the remote, cut our credit cards in half and start new companies with new ideas. Our entrepreneurial spirit and hard work will get us out of this mess. All we need to do is release them.