Innovation is about the new and different to generate enhanced results. It can be found in unlikely places and disrupt industries that are centuries old.

Innovation Rocket Fuel: Moms On A Mission

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What is the catalyst behind big positive change?  Something improved & break-through in business or the community?  I can think of a few catalysts on the surface that drive change

  • The Mad Scientist – It’s hard to keep creative thinking down for long….
  • Survival – Expenses rising faster than revenues, creating a brutal math problem with negative consequences if change does not happen fast
  • A societal need – Someone recognizes an unmet need and looks to fill it:  Hunger, housing, general welfare
  • Personal incentives (put in place by someone else):  “I help drive it, I benefit from it.”
  • Failure.  It’s been well documented that innovation comes from failure, learning from experiments that did not deliver, but new learning was captured and then applied in a different way.

I’ll introduce a more simple, yet powerful force that combines many of the above elements.


Correction:  Moms working together on a common cause, one that is deeply personal.

I’m not talking about the Mom spending power or the Mom’s influence on purchase decisions, which has been well documented.

What I AM talking about is…

The raw impact that can be made when 2+ Moms get together and decide something needs to be done.  And THEY are the ones that need to make it happen.  Because if THEY don’t do it, it will not happen.  And if it does not happen….the consequences are greater than the blood, sweat and tears that result from trying.  So with that, I introduce one of the most powerful catalysts I have witnessed for creating change:

Moms on a Mission

Melissa Todd & Kristin Barek are the spotlighted Moms on a Mission.  They are the driving forces behind bringing Best Buddies to Memphis, a cause that is certainly near and dear to my heart for its focus on social inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities.

Best Buddies Memphis

Melissa Todd & Kristin Barek, Moms on A Mission

In less than 2 years I’ve seen this organization go from idea, to start-up, to setting big goals to expand the service.  This 2 minute video details out their journey well.

Best Buddies international is a powerhouse in the charity world with unbelievable impact.  But there impact was not felt in Memphis without a local chapter. [Continue Reading…]

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Understanding Innovation: Learn From What “Wows” You!

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Innovation is easy to learn from real life experience.  How?  Find products you consume that simply “wow” you, make you talk and make you want to learn more.  Experience them, research them, and reverse engineer to YOUR business model if there is something worthy of “borrowing.”

The process is simple:

  • Find a product you use that makes you talk about, brag, say “try this!”

  • Study the packaging, one of the most critical elements of branding

  • Do some basic research:  Check out the social channels, website, basic Google news/buzz

  • Write down what’s working for the product, ultimately what can be “borrowed.”

Innovation does not need to be a R&D break-through to work.  It also does not need to be driven by costly third party agencies that have a knack for mystifying the process.

But it does need to be special to matter.  More importantly, all the elements of the marketing mix must come together to create a brand loyalist.  Here’s one that nails the equation.

My wife brought the following home:  Popcorn Indiana, “Black & White Kettle corn.”  It was so good the devil must have made it.

Popcorn Indiana Black & White Popcorn

We are not big popcorn eaters, but we are always hunting for the new & different.  This hit the mark.  The combination of chocolate and salt is out of this world.  Guess what else is?

  • The packaging – There are so many health & “quality” claims I’m almost convinced I’m eating a banana.
  • The social media call-outs.  Even better?  Their social media engagement.  They get that social without being “social” is useless. They clearly have standards in place on response time, engagement, and are clearly having fun.  And why not, this is popcorn right?
  • Their website and product line-up – Flavors and unique combinations is what they do; now I want to try the others.  Multimedia, clean images, they simple messaging very well.
  • The founder of the company is somewhat of a serial entrepreneur… can learn a ton by learning about a founder.

I don’t know specifics about the Popcorn category, but it’s fair to assume since it’s a salty snack that it is dominated by big players like Frito Lay.  Low cost producers with massive distribution networks and marketing spending.  Can’t out-spend or “out-muscle” the big boys.

But you can always build a winnable plan that doesn’t confront them head to head.

Innovation should be at the top of the list for differentiating a business.  Being different and unique always serves a simple purpose:  It makes direct comparisons difficult.

When that happens, price is less of a factor…

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Case Study: Local Liquor Store’s Fighting A Sea Change

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There is a fascinating case study playing out for business geeks (and wine lovers) across the state of TN.

Should grocery stores be legally allowed to sell wine?

Thirty-three states currently allow wine sales in grocery stores.  In Tn., the sale of wine is prohibited in grocery stores, so if you’re a wine drinker, you’re forced to go to one of the 600 some odd packaged liquor stores across the state. Where there is money at stake, there is lobbying on both sides (grocers and packaged stores) to get laws passed that will either protect or enhance one’s bottom line.  The debates are fierce.

Interesting things happen in business when law changes present game-changing business scenarios.  When these scenarios play out there are often clear winners and losers.  Choices are made early on that determine the businesses survival, or profitable exit.  More often than not, time becomes the enemy as inertia (lack of decision or wrong decision) eats them alive.

Grocery stores have more to gain, packaged stores are on defense, thinking about their protected distribution channel now being put up for grabs and the thought of Deborah buying her Chardonnay next to the fish counter.

Sometimes businesses can’t control when external forces (government) put them on defense.  But when they are put there, they need to make 1 of 2 clear choices as soon as possible for playing defense effectively:

  1. Get consumed with the game changing issue (law change) and fight to PREVENT it from occurring.  In other words, prevent the future from changing.
  2. Accept that future change is not IF, but WHEN.  Then do 1 of 2 things.
    1. Exit the business if you can’t envision a profitable scenario, and do it fast.
    2. Get off your heels and figure out how to compete, Re-tool your business, get ready to compete since the big boys are coming.

Choosing 1 or 2 comes down to placing a bet if the future is likely to change or not, weighing the scales of both arguments.

Predicting the future sounds daunting, but is really just an educated guess and “weighing the scales.”  To do that, try the following:

  • List out all the stake-holders.  What different groups are involved?  
  • Ask yourself the following:  Will the proposed future change benefit or hurt the respective stakeholder?
  • Is there more $’s TODAY chasing the future proposed state or maintaining the current?  Will that be the case tomorrow, or will it shift?

You need to weigh the scales, for each stakeholder and judge which one wants the future to happen and which one does not.

Depending on which way the scale leans should usually HEAVILY influence you decision.  As it relates to this case, here’s how I see it.[Continue Reading…]

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Beware of Self-imposed Roadblocks

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This week we capped off a long, 4 day meeting with dinner:  7 people around a table from both Marketing & R&D.  Everyone was tired, but also energized after making great progress laying out a foundation for future growth.

The dinner can be summed up with the following Pic.

Drinks and the "no business talk" money pot

Pretty basic, a couple of drinks and a few $ bills.  What’s so special about that?

The picture signified the night’s ground rule:

Talk business, and you put a $1 in the pot.  No Shop Talk!  $’s would get donated to charity.

Roadblock:  Shop talk off limits

Image credit:

In other words, let’s leave the business behind for the evening.  The first 30 minutes I think we filled it with $3 or $4 bucks, minor slip ups, but the business found its way back in the conversation.  The pot however was working, all 7 of us made a concerted effort to avoid shop talk after the $’s started to mount and the “Gotcha’s” were penalized, even cheered.

Then something impressive happened.  One of our R&D managers reached into his pocket, pulled out a $10 bill and slapped it into the pot, with authority!  “I don’t care; I’m buying some shop talk!”  He proceeded to discuss with his teammate/partner an idea that’s been percolating for months, an idea they are both passionate on and won’t let go….

  • “It’s big, innovative, not out there, minimal risk!  What do we need to do to get traction?  How can we move forward?  When?  What’s it all look like?  We can balance it, not let it consume us” etc. 

How do you NOT admire PASSION that just doesn’t seem to die?

I still don’t know if the idea itself has any commercial potential that makes the energy worthwhile, and to be honest, it does not matter.

What DOES matter?  People.  Their passion.  Their drive to take risks, get things done and rally people around a future idea that can pay dividends.

The fancy word for advocates and leaders behind ideas?  CHAMPIONS.

Champions tend to be different from your average person.  They have a spark and drive to accelerate results, make things around them better, and usually have fun in the process.  Champions are worth celebrating, for their passion alone.  They are force multipliers in organizations.

Champions find a way over roadblocks, even when you deliberately put one up in front of them.

The other simple learning of the night?

Having a penalty pot for not talking shop certainly has its purpose.  It can force people to get to know each other on a more personal level, and that has huge value.

But let’s be real:  If you believe that magic can happen around the cocktail napkin for your business, don’t put up roadblocks around topics your people are there for in the first place.  It makes it hard for people to shine when there are roadblocks established.

Not everyone is comfortable breaking rules.  In fact, most people will play by them.  

Leaders have basic roles:  Bring people together.  Remove roadblocks.  Create an environment where ALL people want to contribute.

Thankfully, Champions find a way to jump OVER roadblocks, even when self-imposed.


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The Cocktail Napkin: A Game-Changer From The Old School

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My love of the Old School stems from it’s simplicity.  Things moved at a slower pace back in the day, but that didn’t mean it was LESS focused on generating big outcomes.  I-phones and all their apps did not exist in the ’80s.  But guess what did?

Cocktail napkins.

They worked.  Some of the world’s greatest businesses were launched on cocktail napkins.

Usually, 2 people are having coffee, or of course….a “cocktail” and the conversation moves to something game-changing.

  • An idea…..

  • A Problem

  • A Solution

  • A radical concept

The people both agree that it’s worthy of pen and paper and needs to be captured.  Only none are within arm’s reach… the cocktail napkin enters the scene.

So what’s the big deal about something so old school and simple?

  • Something magical happens when ideas go from brain to paper.

  • They become tangible.  They become refined.  They start to evolve.

  • Pen and paper, or napkins are powerful, if you use them.

It is simply amazing how many people have plenty of great ideas, or problems that stay stuck in their head, never to enter a piece of paper.  Sometimes the difference between SOME results and none are simple the difference between getting it out the head, and onto something tangible.  Think of it as step #1.

Next time your at Starbucks and something hits your brain, reach for the napkin.

Write it down.  You will be one step closer to something better than letting it linger in the ‘noggin.

Brains are like filing cabinets, at some point they over-flow.

over-flowing cabinet

image credit:

Five Businesses Born at a Bar


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The Lessons of Moneyball

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I am a huge baseball fan.

I’m also a “business junkie” and a student of performance.  Few movies combine both of my passions better than Micahel Lewis’s Moneyball.  The movie is entertaining, but the lessons were more powerful.

Nearly all of those lessons were centered around, to borrow a tagline from Apple:  “Think Different” to compete effectively when the odds were stacked against them.  Classic David Vs. Goliath.

The Lessons

  • Facts matter.  Not looks on the surface

  • Conventional wisdom does not work when you are under-resourced

  • “Sexy” factors are often over-valued, while the real indicators that produce the ultimate goal (winning) are sometimes over-looked, and as a result, under-priced.  Opportunity!

  • Under-valuing those create market inefficiency, and opportunity for those with lesser resources to compete

  • Sometimes “experience” creates barriers to seeing true value.

  • In other words, fresh eyes and the baggage they do NOT carry are needed to see assets, where others see liabilities

  • If you believe in something, you can’t be partially committed.  Go All In.

  • Think differently

  • Start early, prepare.  Hustle

  • Losing sucks.  Don’t tolerate it when people don’t seem to be bothered by loosing.  Get them off the team, quick!

  • There are ways to compete against 800lb gorillas, which I wrote about in “Build a Winnable Plan.”  Outspending them is top of the list of things to avoid.


Define the right problem? (language warning!)

Ask the right Questions

“Evaluate 3 players.  I know I did 51.”  Hustle is always a default strategy that never gets old.  No substitute for starting a new role…

That’s what loosing sounds like.  

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A “Think Different” Case Study in Hiring: Walgreens

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People Make things happen……Or Not Happen.  

One of my favorite Axioms in business.  Several businesses get the “people side” right and vibrant cultures are all around us.

Apple is known for innovation, and the core of that competency is their “THINK DIFFERENT” mantra.

Apple think different innovation

Innovation is about introducing something new or doing something in a different way.  It’s the catalyst for growth and avoiding the race to the bottom (margin erosion through price declines).

True innovation almost always goes against conventional wisdom.

Employees (or “labor) represent a major cost that hits every company’s P&L.  Forward thinking businesses view labor as investments, or assets.  Regardless of the view and where we are in the economic cycle, finding good, capable, motivated people to do the job is a never-ending challenge.

Who comes to mind in the “Think Different” area of employment?  Walgreens.

walgreens innovation in hiring practices disabilities

Walgreen’s factoids:

1)  They are a huge retailer, with over $70BB in revenue.  In retail, success is measured as earning pennies on the dollar.

2)  They operate a ton of Distribution Centers (“DC’s”) across the country that aim to keep 7,500+ stores in stock with products.  These are classic “high turnover” employment centers across the retail landscape.

#2 is where I’m fascinated.  Walgreen’s has demonstrated “Think Different” better than any big business I’m aware of.

They are proving that they can generate fantastic business results in their DC’s with unconventional, innovative hiring practices.

Quick Overview


Walgreen’s is out front & leading, they are no longer experimenting.

Lesson’s From Walgreen’s

  • Every big dream, initiative or “new” approach needs a champion, the higher up in the organization structure the better.
  • If you have multiple choices for a Champion, pick the one with the biggest “fire in the belly.”  I would argue that the person with stronger fire will trump organizational rank.  Arguable, but when you review Randy Lewis’ presentation below, you may agree.
    • For Walgreen’s, Randy Lewis is the champion, and he is driven by more than just the need for better business results.
    • Champions with senior titles are important, but when there is a fire in the belly driven by something personal, that’s a champion on steroids.  An extra “edge” is always critical when you are looking for break-through leaders.
  • Data and facts almost always win.  Set your experiments up correctly on the front end, and how the test will be measured.
  • You will have surprises and new learning’s with experiments.  For tests that work, you cannot predict them on the front end, but those surprises will provide fuel to move faster than originally anticipated
    • If it’s throughput, get a baseline and how it changes.  Compare group A vs. Group B.  Turnover, do the same.
  • ACT ON THE DATA!  If the results are measurably better, INVEST!  Why else would you test something if this were not the expectation in the first place?
    • Nothing kills momentum more than organizational inertia, especially when the data tells you to move, and move quickly.
  • Spread the story.  Put it on websites.  Speak at conferences.  This is not only good PR, it creates a “multiplier impact” as other businesses take notice and follow suit.

The videos tell the story better than I can.  But I will say this:

When a high ranking executive of a $70bb company says “Wow!  This is not just as good, this is better!” and what he’s talking about is a practice that nearly all businesses are NOT executing, he’s onto something.  He’s out front and leading, innovating.  

Yes he’s accomplishing social good with the practice and that is smart to be a great corporate citizen.  When you do that AND it generates better results?   No-brainer territory to move quickly.

Plenty of info below to absorb below, hard data and “soul stirring” videos.

Part of “Hustle” is having the energy & discipline to let EXCELLENCE inspire you.  Role Models matter.  If you’re going to watch only one, watch the last one and learn from Randy Lewis, the CHAMPION behind the ground breaking results.

“A Warehouse of Wonders” – A little deeper:  Does this start to challenge your assumptions?  

This Place Changes Everyone- An inside look from the view of the employees on the front lines.  Where it all gets done.

 Randy Lewis:  The Leader Behind The Walgreen’s Initiative.  A GAME-CHANGER in every sense of the word.  
  • The stories are fascinating and will challenge what you THINK you know about performance.  



For the Quant Jocks.  Hard Data that speaks for itself.  “Creating an Inclusive Workplace.  Integrating Employees With Disabilities Into A Distribution Center Environment”


*  March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day which provided the inspiration for laying out this case study in “Thinking Differently.”  This is a day where people celebrate the ABilities of people with special needs, not their DIS-abilities.

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Excellence – Learn From the Elite Ballpark Vendors

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Excellence can be found in every profession.  You name it, there’s a “cream of the crop” in every walk of life and the 80/20 rule always emerges, where a select few generate the greatest results.

Take ballpark vendors.  Hawkers of hot dogs, beer, peanuts & cracker-jacks.

Not all are created equal.  Some out Hustle their counterparts.  Some come up with a creative twist to selling their product.  Some simply “out-care” their competition.  All love what they do, and some may even do it for free.  All create a bond with their customers.

There is learning from all below videos.  Some will simply make you laugh!

Hope you learn something from the folks that make our national past time enjoyable!

The Grand Daddy of them all

Roger Owens – LA dodgers famous peanut vendor.  There’s a ton of “peanut guys,” but there is only 1 Roger.  47 years, a following and a ground breaker.  There’s a best in class in every profession and in the world of peanut vendors, this guy is it.  Do you think his heart is pure?  Think he’s an advantage for the Dodgers organization?


Stamina and Brevity from the Beer Man


Crazy Hot Dog Guy – Fight for your product!


“The Beer Guy” – Intensity and focus matters


16 year minor league beer vendor, that started out as a Side Hustle.  Relationships matter, and “you can always get better.”

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4 Reasons the College President Sleeps Well at Night….While Their Industry Awaits Disruption

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I can’t think of another industry that is more “ripe for disruption” than the higher education market.  

I’m not sure if being the President of a University would excite me or leave me up at night in cold sweats.  Probably both, but I suspect that most Presidents are sleeping well at night.  It reminds me of  the music, book, and traditional retailing industries overall.  These are industries that have long histories of stability that were turned on their head when a better, sometimes more efficient (ie cheaper) alternative came along.  I’m sure those companies did not see the disruption coming either.

While positive changes in higher education are certainly happening, it does not  seem to recognize the magnitude of what could lie ahead related to “disruption.”  So I will write this post as if I were the President of your beloved Alma Mater, commenting on his or her ability to sleep at night.

What Excites Me Leading The University:

1)  I sell a product that falls into the “no brainer” camp called a college education.  Employment opportunities, lifetime earnings and the overall “intangibles” of a college education (vs not having one) are numerous and in black and white numbers reported by the US census.

It’s worth PERSONALLY envisioning where YOU would be, had you NOT spent your time in college, and compare that to where you are now.  Chances are, you feel great about your college investment.  While your college experience may not be credited with 100% for all your life’s blessings, I do suspect it would be high on most people’s list.  As a result, these good feelings tend to be generational and self-sustaining, creating long term inertia and little need for fundamental change in the industry.  If it worked for me, than by golly that’s what I’ll do form my kids!  It is a self perpetuating cycle that leads to more of the same.

Unemployment and Earning comparison of education levels

 Back to the President….

It’s fun to market a “no-brainer, gotta have!” product that is universally recognized as being the link to “game changing” life outcomes as an advanced education is often linked too.  So my faith in PRODUCT, scores a perfect 10 on my ability to sleep at night.

2)  Don’t take my word for it, the population recognizes these facts, and their actions prove it over the past 50 years.  In 1950, about 5% of the population had a bachelor’s degree.  Today, that number approaches 1/3.

More importantly, that means there are tons of growth opportunities that lie ahead.  While there has been massive growthnearly 2/3’s of the population have NOT obtained that bachelors degree.  Plenty of HUNTING ground for new customers.  It’s great to be in the 3rd inning of a game that looks like we are winning by a wide margin.

Education Attainment of Population 1947 to 2003

 3)  When you have a GREAT product proposition, and more and more customers flocking to your door, the laws of supply and demand tend to be in your favor.  What does this mean?  PRICING POWER.  When you have the ability to price your product north, that creates more opportunities for re-investment (faculty, buildings, technology, marketing), and is simply less stressful than industries engaged in the race to the bottom.

And how has college tuition/fees been priced relative to overall inflation?  This chart sums it up.

College inflation vs overall inflation

 What’s important to Note:  While my factors #1 & 2 could RELATE to the pricing reality, it may not necessarily have DRIVEN the price of college increases.  In statistics, there is a saying:  “Correlation does not imply causation.”  Nevertheless, if I’m the President, I would rather see this chart than the reverse.

4)  There is a “big brother” in our corner, called the federal government.  They recognize the USA’s competitive position in the global economy is linked to a highly skilled and educated work force, and they put their money where their mouth is with grants, cheap loans, etc.  “Making college affordable” is a theme that does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

Abundant money supply with a growing consumer base also provides a “sleep well at night factor” that approaches a 10.

Incidentally, this may be a contributing factor to cost escalation as well.

Those are 4 big factors as President of this esteemed University I feel great about.  I have a great product.  More and more customers show up every year.  I can grow rapidly, as more people haven’t experienced this product than have.  And  I can price it strong, and while I wouldn’t abuse it, there seems to be no limit to pricing well above the overall inflation rate, the past 15 years prove it.  It’s also nice to have a pretty big check-book in my industries corner called the federal government.

Are there things that concern me?  [Continue Reading…]

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Smart Innovation: 2 CPG New Products That Work

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Innovation is the life blood of a CPG company.  It gives the salesforce a reason to see their buyers and generates consumer interest at the point of purchase.  Ultimately, smart innovation drives profitable incremental $ sales.  It “margins up” a brand for the manufacturer and the retailer.  Innovation is also critical to driving market share gains, one of the critical “missing” P’s of marketing.”

Too often however, new products simply cannibalize existing products.  Why?

  • Appearance:  Same Old, Same Old.  They LOOK exactly like the base products
  • Form & Function are nearly identical to base offering.  The closer the form to the base, the more likely for switching to occur within the franchise
  • Overall, it’s simply a “tweak” off the existing product.  Different flavor.  Marginally better formula.  New Size.

By definition, the further away from the base, the more likely the incrementality of the new product.  Risk also increases.  Like investments, risk is usually correlated with reward in the new product arena.

Here are 2 examples from Billion $+ brands:  Campbell’s & Pringles.

Campbell's Skillet new product

Pringles Stix new product

Why would I consider this “smart innovation?”

  • Fits with their brand equity, they have “license” to extend into these areas.
  • They are sufficiently different from base offerings
  • They bring something substantially interesting to the consumer.  Usage, packaging, ease of use, health benefits.

Campbell’s is clearly the riskier proposition of the two.  Both brands compete in big categories, but if I were to bet, this product line would generate greater total (and incremental) sales vs the Pringles Stix, also probably requires more investment than the closer in Pringles product.

I’m sure Campbell’s did their research, but my first instinct was that the choice of all black packaging, with no reference to their nostalgic “red & white” can may be too far of a reach?  Again, only the insiders understand the testing, consumer feedback and goals, so this is not a second guess (just an observation) as I’m sure they did their homework.

One observation:  While doing a simple Google search on “Cambell’s Skillet Sauces” and reviewing the first page results, it seems like their was a 10:1 ratio of price promotion (store deals, coupon offers) to product reviews, blog offerings.  While this is not uncommon for a new product entry, I did see one fantastic blog review with great product shots, opinions and  instructions (link below).

It begs a key question:  Which communication is more valuable to the brand owners, the trial incentives or the blog review?  What if the 10:1 ratio of incentives vs third party reviews was flipped on the front page of Google, would this thrill the brand team or disappoint them?

If the answer is the former,  did the product intro budget and resulting objectives reflect this desire?  If not, why?

Would love to hear your thoughts….

blog write-up of campbell's skillet


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