robhastings

Unsung Heroes - My Grandmother

Posted by Rob on August 2nd, 2013 at 11:54am

This post is in a series on my blog entitled "Unsung Heroes." In case you haven't read it before, here is why I think these blog posts are important:

When my grandfather passed away in December 2010, I had a strong regret. I wrote a eulogy for my grandfather which I delivered at his funeral, but as I wrote about all of the things he meant to me and others, I regretted not telling him these things directly before he passed away. I promised myself I didn't want that to happen again.

My blog is about almost anything, but I also want to periodically take the time to write about people to which I need to say "thank you." Sure, I've personally thanked many people for the countless things they have done for me, but there are some things that deserve to be publicly highlighted in black and white. That's what these posts are about - the unsung heroes in my life, like my grandfather, who have made me the man I am today.


I had the best déjà vu recently. It was one of those moments where all my senses seemed to be reliving the past with incredible clarity and distinction.

What prompted it?

Chicken Salad.

You see, for as long as I can remember, my grandmother (my father’s mother) had our entire family over for lunch on Sunday afternoons. Mom Mom, as my sister, cousins, and I called her, always made delicious chicken salad. It was her staple dish for Sunday lunches, and we couldn’t get enough of it.

My grandmother passed away in 2007 after suffering from a brain aneurism. She was 90 years old, and she lived a life full of faith, endurance, hardship, and joy. She married my grandfather, a minister, at a young age, and the two of them enjoyed life as a young couple while my grandfather was appointed to different churches throughout Delaware and Maryland. They loved each other, and they were very happy.

More joy arrived at the births of my father and my aunt. Their family was growing as they continued ministry as a family throughout the church conference. However, in 1953, their faith was tested. My grandfather began experiencing tremors in his hands and began to lose control of his speech. At first, it wasn’t noticeable, but soon, he couldn’t deliver a sermon from the pulpit. Physicians diagnosed him with Parkinson’s Disease.

Quickly, his condition deteriorated. The horrific disease stole his mobility, speech, and ability to feed himself. It stiffened his legs in a fetal position while tightening his hands that tremored near his face. It confined him to a bed for 38 years where he constantly had to be shifted in order to avoid bed sores. How could God do this to a man who preached His word?

That’s my question, not my grandmother’s. In fact, she never would have asked that. Her faith was amazingly strong as she cared for my grandfather for those 38 years until his passing in 1991. She fed him, bathed him, read him the Bible, and loved him. I know it was arduous, but she never showed it.

At the same time, she knew caring for him would be expensive. She still needed to provide for her children’s needs and for herself. So, she started a business.

My grandmother opened a gift shop out of her home to make the financial ends meet for her family after my grandfather became ill. She sold cards, pottery, dishes, and other decorative pieces to sustain an income. Likewise, she ordered the inventory, did the accounting, and handled all aspects of the business. In between customers, she would attend to my grandfather to ensure his needs were met.

And who could forget? On Sundays, every Sunday, she had the family over for lunch and her chicken salad.

My cousin Alycia recently discovered my grandmother’s chicken salad recipe while going through some old keepsakes. Before my grandmother passed in 2007, Alycia asked her to write down the recipe to our beloved chicken salad. Like many women of my grandmother’s generation, the recipe was stored in her mind. She had made it so many times; she didn’t need it written down.

Alycia gave the recipe to my wife Nancy who loves to cook. It meant a lot to me that Nancy would be trying my grandmother’s chicken salad recipe. Nancy never met my grandmother, but I know they would have hit it off immediately. Their mannerisms, demeanor, zest for life, and charisma are incredibly similar, and in fact, they even have the same birthday.

When Nancy made the chicken salad and I tasted it again for the first time in over 8 years, I was brought back to the dining room table at Mom Mom’s house.

While the rest of us talked, laughed, teased, and carried on, my grandmother sat at the head of the table, watching intently as her family enjoyed the weekly lunch.

"Bob, is the chicken salad too wet?” she asked my father, referring to the amount of dressing.

"Well, for my taste, yes,” my father responded in a teasing way.

Mom Mom rose from the table. “I will make another batch."

"No, Mom, I’m just kidding. Sit down and enjoy your chicken salad."

Yes, Mom Mom, after taking care of everyone else for so many years, you, more than anyone, deserved to enjoy your delicious chicken salad.

Creating Value BEFORE Valuation

Posted by Rob on October 10th, 2012 at 8:50am

As my team and I prepared for the launch of onLessons.com with a competitive market analysis, one theme was definitively present: companies in our space are attempting to create valuation BEFORE creating value for their customers.

So you ask in the simplest of terms… isn't the point of a business to make money? Why wouldn't they want to create a higher company value based on increased revenues and profits? Yes, indeed it is. However, in my opinion, a company that attempts to create valuation BEFORE creating value is unsustainable in the long term.

For example, two of onLessons.com's indirect competitors are in the tutoring and music lessons verticals. The tutoring company takes a 40% commission from each tutoring session, and the music lessons company takes a 50% commission from each music lesson. If that's not enough, they then charge instructors a yearly "administrative" fee.

Lesson instructors and tutors typically teach in order to earn secondary income. 50% commission from each lesson is absurd, and as we found in completing our own customer development, most instructors are outraged by the greed of these companies. As a result, these companies' attempt to create valuation before creating value is not sustainable as it creates unhappy customers who feel they have been cheated.

So how do you create value BEFORE valuation?

You talk to prospective customers to determine their needs; you build a darn good product or service with features that customers want; you offer that product or service after determining the customer’s willingness to pay; and finally, you offer the product or service at the outset in a way that has zero risk to the customer.

It's that simple. As a result, customers are excited to try your product or service, and they will use it prolifically for the long-term knowing that their interests as customers are being placed before a company's desire to create financial wealth.

onLessons.com is committed to this principle. In the end, our company will create revenue through a mass of satisfied customers who understand that our priority is creating value first.

Unsung Heroes - Don Carney

Posted by Rob on September 26th, 2012 at 3:57pm

This post is in a series on my blog entitled "Unsung Heroes." In case you haven't read it before, here is why I think these blog posts are important:

When my grandfather passed away in December 2010, I had a strong regret. I wrote a eulogy for my grandfather which I delivered at his funeral, but as I wrote about all of the things he meant to me and others, I regretted not telling him these things directly before he passed away. I promised myself I didn't want that to happen again.

My blog is about almost anything, but I also want to periodically take the time to write about people to which I need to say "thank you." Sure, I've personally thanked many people for the countless things they have done for me, but there are some things that deserve to be publicly highlighted in black and white. That's what these posts are about - the unsung heroes in my life, like my grandfather, who have made me the man I am today.


I was 12 years old when I met Mr. Don Carney.

My parents had just purchased a home across town, and Mr. Carney and his wife were our new next-door neighbors. At the time, Mr. Carney was in his 60’s, but he was as active as any 20 year old. He loved the outdoors, doing things with his hands, and spending time with his family. However, I soon discovered that Mr. Carney wasn’t any other next-door neighbor – he was someone from whom I would learn much, greatly admire, and hold with the highest respect.

When we moved into the home, it required many “projects.” While my father is very competent, he had little experience with designing and installing a full acre lot irrigation system or building a 90-foot wide retainer wall. Mr. Carney insisted that he help with these projects and countless other ones. He spent hours upon hours over many years helping us with these “projects,” and when my father tried to pay him because it was obviously more than neighborly help, he always refused. He genuinely enjoyed helping us, and while we tried to return favors by cutting his grass or other small tasks, they paled in comparison to all that he did for us.

One hot summer day, I was cutting the grass in our front yard. As I made a pass down the yard, I saw Mr. Carney watching me intently. I stopped the mower, and he came over to talk to me. He never chastised me, but this day was an exception.

“Why is your hat on backwards?” he asked.

“Because it’s hot,” I responded, realizing that my answer was a poor excuse/reason.

“Put your hat on the way it’s meant to be worn,” he instructed. “Atta boy, now come inside for some dessert,” he said after I fixed my hat.

From that day on, I rarely wore my hat backwards. And if I did, I always made sure to turn it around before riding past his house. It was only his small personal pet-peeve, but I respected him so much that I didn’t want to disappoint him.

Living next door to Mr. Carney on the river, he knew how much I loved the water. When I was 14 years old, my parents bought me my first Jon boat (a 12” aluminum flat-bottom boat with a 7.5 hp Johnson motor). When I flipped and sunk the boat on the first day I had it, Mr. Carney helped me pull the spark plugs and get it running again. A couple years later, he gave me a pontoon boat and named it “Prince Robert.” That’s who he was – a genuinely kind-hearted person who would do anything for anyone.

While Mr. Carney and I were always very close, my senior year in high school brought us even closer. Every Wednesday night at 7:00pm, Mr. Carney had me over to visit. We sat in his garage, which was the ultimate “man cave,” as we talked and shined my black leather shoes in preparation for the ROTC uniform inspection I had every Thursday at school. Mr. Carney served in the Navy as a young man in World War II and witnessed the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. He told me he could shine shoes with the best Sailors in the Fleet. And he was right; his spit shine technique helped me immensely through plebe summer (and restriction) at the Naval Academy.

But more importantly, we spent those nights in important discussions as men about life, my future career, and how to be a good person. He had it figured out, and I wanted to listen.

After an hour or so, Mrs. Carney would bring us dessert in the garage. She makes the best desserts. Our conversations would turn to lighter topics, and eventually, I’d give Mr. Carney a hug and head home. I certainly didn’t take those conversations for granted then, but now that I am older, I realize even more how much they really mean to me. Every young man needs a Mr. Carney.

Mr. Carney passed away in March 2006. I couldn’t attend the services because of my commitments to the Navy at the time, but my parents told me that there wasn’t an empty seat in the church. I wasn’t surprised – all of those people had the same love for Mr. Carney that I did.

Mr. Carney is the epitome of an unsung hero in my life.

1,230%: Why I Love Penny Stocks

Posted by Rob on September 12th, 2012 at 10:39am

Yes, you read that correctly. I sold IGSM today when it was up 1,230%.

IGSM is a penny stock that I have been in and out of a few times. Let me say this first - it is a horrible company with poor financials and its operations can be described as "shady" at best. It's actually a holding company shell, and its most recent acquisition was a Mom and Pop Sausage Shop. This is not a security that you invest in; it's actually a huge gamble.

But that's what penny stocks are - a gamble. You have to be prepared to lose your entire investment. It's happened to me before, and it will most likely happen again.

I wouldn't recommend IGSM or any other penny stock to anyone. In fact, IGSM will probably have tanked by the time you read this. But if you enjoy a little (actually a lot of) risk in your portfolio, find your own IGSM, do your own due diligence, and perhaps the gamble will pay you a nice return as well.

Unsung Heroes - Dyke Belcher

Posted by Rob on July 23rd, 2012 at 9:47am

This post is in a series on my blog entitled "Unsung Heroes." In case you haven't read it before, here is why I think these blog posts are important:

When my grandfather passed away in December 2010, I had a strong regret. I wrote a eulogy for my grandfather which I delivered at his funeral, but as I wrote about all of the things he meant to me and others, I regretted not telling him these things directly before he passed away. I promised myself I didn't want that to happen again.

My blog is about almost anything, but I also want to periodically take the time to write about people to which I need to say "thank you." Sure, I've personally thanked many people for the countless things they have done for me, but there are some things that deserve to be publicly highlighted in black and white. That's what these posts are about - the unsung heroes in my life, like my grandfather, who have made me the man I am today.


I grew up loving the water, and I still do to this day. I was always at the local community pool during the summer, I was on the swim team, and I even swam competitively in high school and college. When my parents moved to a house on the local river, there wasn't a single day of summer that I wasn't out swimming, fishing, or boating. I loved the water and always wanted to be in it. But it wasn't always that way.

When I was six years old, my parents signed me up for the swim team. I remember my first swim meet like it was yesterday. I was nervous and I even remember pleading with my mother not to make me go. When it was my turn to race, I hesitantly stepped on the starting block. My coach, Dyke Belcher, looked on from the side of the pool.

Dyke was one of my father's former students, and I always remember my father saying he was a tremendous athlete. Likewise, Dyke always seemed to be in a good mood, and even at a young age, I could tell that people enjoyed and liked to be around Dyke Belcher.

"Bang!" The starting gun of the race fired. I was petrified to jump in the pool and swim the short 25-yards to the other end. I stood there as I saw Dyke in my peripheral vision run from his coaching spot on the side of the pool to my starting block. Suddenly, I felt a massive hand shove me off the starting block and in the pool. I looked back as I entered the water, and Dyke yelled, "Swim!"

I swam as I hard as I could to the other end of the pool, mostly out of fear. Despite my delayed start, I narrowly missed a first place finish. As I pulled myself out of the pool, Dyke was there to meet me. He squatted down, placed his hands on my shoulders, and said words I'll never forget and for which I will be forever grateful.

"You can't win the races you don't start Robert."

Innovation: A Look at "Old Tech"

Posted by Rob on July 12th, 2012 at 8:12am

Most people would agree that innovation is the key element for the sustainability of a technology company. As a result, I laugh to myself when I hear the term "old tech." To me, this term implies that these companies have failed to continually innovate in the present and are merely riding the wave of their past success. Is that possible as a technology company? "Old tech" companies that come to mind in this regard are Cisco (CSCO), Intel (INTC), and Microsoft (MSFT). Let's take a closer look.

Ten to twenty years ago, all three of these companies were dominant market players, and the fact is, they still are. However, there is a subtle difference; they are not innovative market players. To put it simply, INTC continues making chips, CSCO produces networking equipment, and MSFT generates operating systems. Sure, there are arguments for each company that innovation has occurred within their respective niches, but has it?

For example, MSFT's Windows 8 employs an interface based on its Metro design language (similar to its Windows phone) that is meant to accommodate both touchscreen and keyboard/mouse input. Each tile of this interface design represents an application. Sound familiar (AAPL)? Yes. Innovative? No. Even its latest hardware release, the tablet called Surface, is hardly innovative. A tablet with apps? Genius, but about three years late.

From an investor standpoint, all three of these "old tech" companies have largely disappointed shareholders. As one can see in the comparison chart below, these companies have resulted in little capital gain and even loss for long-term investors.



However, while these companies' best days of innovation are behind them, they are still very successful. In fact, their EPS growth is very strong. For example, MSFT's EPS was $0.68 in 2001 but is currently $2.75. So why hasn't the stock price appreciated with this increase in EPS? The reason is simple. These companies were the pinnacle of the dot-com bubble and boasted extremely high P/E ratios (over 40). In other words, the market had already priced in this growth over the last decade which gave the stocks little room to appreciate for longer term shareholders. All three companies' P/E ratios are currently between 10 and 12 and thus presently stand at a more attractive valuation.

While the over valuations of over a decade ago may have contributed to the disappointing return for shareholders, the ultimate performance measure of these companies returns to innovation. When comparing these "Big Three" to AAPL, who was founded one year after MSFT and is definitely not considered "old tech", AAPL is clearly the leader in technology innovation. With AAPL's market cap more than double MSFT, quadruple INTC, and sextuple CSCO, it clear that innovation is indeed the key element for not only sustainability but also high growth of a tech company.

AGNC: The Perfect Stock?

Posted by Rob on June 23rd, 2012 at 1:08pm

I fell in love with American Capital Agency Corp. (AGNC) in January 2011. Yes, true, you shouldn't fall in love with a stock because in most cases you will lose your investment; however, I make an exception for AGNC. AGNC is a low-risk mREIT which boast a 15.5% dividend yield and is up 16% YTD in 2012.

For those who may be unfamiliar, a mREIT is a mortage real estate investment trust. By law, REITs are required to pay out 90% their taxable income to shareholders. mREITS are more profitable when they can "bank on the spread," or in other words, take advantage of low interest rates in order to procure property. With interest rates currently so low, REITs like AGNC are doing very well. Furthermore, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeated the Fed's intent to keep interest rates at or near the current levels at least until mid-2014. As a result, one can assume REITs such as AGNC will continue to enjoy large interest rate spreads and thus return a significant dividend to shareholders.

AGNC posted earnings of $1.29 per share in the first quarter of 2012, beating analysts estimates by $0.14 per share. With a beta of .2, the stock currently pays a quarterly dividend of 15.5%.

I hold AGNC in my Roth-IRA. I re-invest the quarterly dividend and am currently up 43% on the security (dividend and share appreciation). I plan to hold AGNC until 2014 or until the Federal Reserve indicates an impending change in interest rates.

Disclosure: I am long AGNC. This blog post is not a buy or sell recommendation of any security; investors should do their own due diligence before buying or selling stock.

Unsung Heroes - My Grandfather

Posted by Rob on June 18th, 2012 at 3:36pm

When my grandfather passed away in December 2010, I had a strong regret. I wrote a eulogy for my grandfather which I delivered at his funeral, but as I wrote about all of the things he meant to me and others, I regretted not telling him these things directly before he passed away. I promised myself I didn't want that to happen again.

My blog is about almost anything, but I also want to periodically take the time to write about people to which I need to say "thank you." Sure, I've personally thanked many people for the countless things they have done for me, but there are some things that deserve to be publicly highlighted in black and white. That's what these posts are about - the unsung heroes in my life, like my grandfather, who have made me the man I am today.

Here is the eulogy I wrote for my grandfather, Anthony Monaco:

As I was growing up and still to this day, many of my family members have called me by both my first and middle names, Robert Anthony. My Aunt Mary has always referred to me as "Little Robert Anthony." My Aunt Dora and Aunt Chenz would address birthday cards to me as "Robert Anthony." And my Aunt Jan would sometimes just send me notes that said, "Dear Anthony." I didn't quite understand this when I was younger. No one else called me by both my first and/or middle names - only those that were close to my grandfather, or as I call him, “Grandpop.” But as I matured and grew into a young man, it soon became obvious why so many people utilized my middle name in addressing me - it was out of extraordinary respect and admiration for my grandfather. He was a man of magnetic charisma, unending generosity, and he had a love and commitment for family that showed no bounds.

As I grew older, I too came to develop this same great respect for my grandfather and the life that he lived. As many of you know, my grandfather served in the United States Army and was a veteran of the Korean War. I asked him quite frequently about his time in the Army as I tried to solicit “war stories” from his memory, and he often spoke of his work as a mechanic on the Army’s tanks, transport vehicles, and trucks. But one of my greatest memories as a child was when took me down to his basement and showed me some remaining decorations and medals from his time in uniform. One of the medals was the National Defense Medal which was originally commissioned by President Eisenhower following the Korean War to honor any service member who served honorably in a period of designated conflict. Today, almost 60 years later, this medal is the oldest service medal in circulation by the United States Armed Forces. As a naval officer, I too wear this same decoration, and I am both humbled and honored that my grandfather and I share this medal as a display of dutiful service. His service to country, commitment to duty, and courage to stand and defend our flag in the toughest of times are representative of his great character and loyalty to our nation. I could not be more proud to serve our great country knowing that my grandfather served so honorably before me.

Another area of great respect that I have for my grandfather is his keen sense of business and entrepreneurship. Following his service in the Army, my grandfather was newly married and my mother and Aunt Cindy were born shortly thereafter. With only a high school education and recognizing the need to provide for his family, Grandpop, along with his father, operated Monaco’s Tap Room in downtown Wilmington, DE, a profitable business that he ran successfully through the 1970’s. At this time, my grandfather, along with my grandmother, his parents and siblings, recognized a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the soon-to-be booming beach town of Wildwood, NJ. The Caprice Motel opened in the 1960’s, and for over 30 years, the motel was more than a place to sleep at night. Vacationers returned repeatedly to the Caprice year after year because my grandparents understood the importance of hospitality, how to make vacationers feel welcome, and how to create a personable feel to a crowded beach town. My grandparents were masters of these principles in every respect.

My grandparents sold the Caprice Motel in 1988, but following my grandmother’s passing in 2003, Grandpop returned to Wildwood to assist his siblings with the Nomad Parking Lot. He rarely missed a weekend in Wildwood from May to October each year, and it was truly a passion of his to work the parking lot for the past seven years. I can recall calling him after large weekends such as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day, and he would boast to me about how many cars were parked that weekend and the unbelievable sums of money that were made. Not a dime of this money was to his name, but his love for business as well the success of his family were his driving motivators. I cannot express enough thanks to you Uncle Jack, Uncle Al and Aunt Mary, and Aunt Jan, for allowing Grandpop to fulfill his passion for business and to really give him a purpose to life following my grandmother’s passing. Thank you so much.

A key lesson that I have learned from my grandfather’s keen business sense is that just because you might have financial wealth, doesn’t mean you have to spend it. Let me explain. Anyone that knew Grandpop knows that he loved a good deal. He cut coupons from every Sunday’s newspaper, he drove completely across town or even to New Jersey to get gas that was just two cents cheaper, and he would even go see a movie only to walk into an adjacent theater immediately after to see another as “two for the price of one.” In fact, the day before Thanksgiving when Grandpop had his stroke, he was actually at Delaware Park to receive a free apple pie that they were giving away. Yes, he indeed loved a good deal, and while at times it was very amusing, it aligned with his keen business sense that made him financially successful and for which I have enormous respect.

But perhaps the greatest respect that I have for my grandfather is his unending love and commitment to family. When I was about 10 years old, my mother and Aunt Cindy took me to New York City for a day of sightseeing. One of our stops was Ellis Island where we looked up the name of my great grandfather, Antonio Monaco, who came to the United States from Italy in 1901 with his uncle only to be accidentally separated from him just after their arrival. At the age of 14, he found work and eventually returned to Italy where he married and then returned again to the United States. Although I never met my great grandfather, I think often about the extraordinary sacrifice he made for the love and commitment to his family. Grandpop embodied these same ideals, and I believe that he did so as a direct result of seeing his father do the same.

In the eyes of my grandmother and grandfather, there was no greater priority than family. Any family event, near or far, they would attend. They looked forward to phone calls, letters, birthdays, holidays, and weddings; any event that would bring family together. I remember in 2001 when we held a surprise party for their 50th wedding anniversary. They were both more excited that our family was together than they were to celebrate their anniversary. They also took great pride and joy in our family achievements and successes as if they were their own. I can recall numerous times hearing the excitement in their voices as they told me about joys such as Uncle Dave becoming an Appellate Judge for the Florida Court of Appeals, about Robbie singing in the Philadelphia Boys Choir, when my mother was ordained as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and when their beloved nieces and nephews began their own families. There are many more examples, but the point is, they loved family.

But woven into their commitment to family was a commitment to each other. An unending love that was pure, compassionate, trusting, forgiving, and committed. They were married in 1951, and for 51 years my grandfather was the model husband for any marriage. He honored, respected, and loved my grandmother more than anything. And even to the time of his own passing, he honored her by small gestures such as putting her initials on the passenger side door of his vehicles just under the pinstripe. She was the light of his world, and his model of a husband in marriage has been a guiding example for me in my own marriage.

Today, we celebrate the life of a man that has touched all of us through his love, friendship, generosity, charisma, and character. Whether you called him Anthony, Daddy, Uncle Anthony, Mr. Monaco, or as I did, Grandpop, the respect we have developed for him will remain our hearts. May the Lord bless his soul this day and always, Amen.

The Five-Floor Elevator Pitch

Posted by Rob on June 13th, 2012 at 2:17pm

I recently attended a San Diego SCORE Workshop to get some exposure to an business area of which I had very little familiarity. At the start of the workshop, the instructor asked those in attendance to stand, introduce themselves, and describe their current or future business. While the instructor had intended for this ice-breaker to take only 10-15 minutes, the exercise lasted almost an hour as each of the 35 workshop attendees struggled to efficiently describe his or her business in a concise and understandable form. It was extremely painful, and I realized that many good business ideas are lost within an individual's inability to effectively explain that idea.

Many entrepreneurs lose touch with the obvious - you should be able to communicate a business idea during the time spent to ride an elevator! And this isn't an 80-floor elevator ride either; entrepreneurs should be able to deliver their pitch in the time it takes to travel five floors. This equates roughly to one sentence. If an entrepreneur cannot do so, the entrepreneur should continue revising the pitch until the business idea can be described and understood in one sentence.

Let's take a look at my elevator pitch for onLessons.com:

onLessons.com is a service that allows students to find and schedule any type of lesson with a local instructor.

Did you understand the business of onLessons.com? Based on the thousands of times my co-founders and I have said this sentence, most people understand the pitch. At the same time, the pitch begs for more. This is a good thing! We want the receiver of the pitch to get off the elevator after five floors and ask "How?" If you succeed in this, your pitch has been successful.

Steven Gal, a serial entrepreneur and professor at the Johnson School of Management and Rady School of Management, is very astute at elevator pitches. His mentorship in this regard has been invaluable.