Origin Stories: Shoegnome

October 3rd, 1979 is not the day I was born. It is actually a more important date, even though it happened 15 months and 9 days before I was born.

October 3rd, 1979 is the day my mom was home with my older brothers, aged 3 and almost 6,  when a tornado ripped through Windsor and Windsor Locks, Connecticut. They were in the kitchen upstairs and some how survived as the house exploded around them.

October 3rd, 1979 is the day that an F4 tornado caused 500 injuries and 3 deaths in a quiet corner of northern Connecticut.

October 3rd, 1979 is the day that convinced my parents that they needed a third kid.

On October 3rd, 1979 my mom was two years younger than I am today. And next year my daughters will be the same age as my brothers where during the tornado.

October 3rd always makes me think of origins, luck, and life changing events. So with reverence to the 34th anniversary of that eventful day, I’ll share with you the answer to the most asked question in my professional life: why the heck is your company called Shoegnome.

Back in 2006, I was working at a small architecture firm in Minneapolis. It was actually the firm where I first learned ArchiCAD. I was always fixing everyone else’s work. These were the days of Teamwork 1 (multiple people working on the same file at the same time). Instead of explaining to my coworkers the (often tiny) fixes that needed to be made, or asking for control over their part of the ArchiCAD model (which took forever), it was easier to fix the work by sneaking over to their desks when they went to lunch or the restroom. If I wasn’t doing that, I was getting to the office first, or staying late, to take control of the entire file and make the necessary changes.

At my next job, I had similar experiences. I was always being called to “save” projects. I would finish the construction documents for one project and then instead of starting on a new project or staying with the original through construction, I’d inevitably join another project already underway—a project that was falling behind schedule, needing more manpower, or just not turning out well. I was this workhorse within the company bouncing from project to project, working in the shadows, rarely meeting clients. And all the while my coworkers would also be calling me over to their desks to untangle the messes they’d created. Many of you might recognize that experience and call it “BIM manager” or “IT manager”. No disagreements from me.

All this behind the scenes fixing behavior reminded me of the Brothers Grimm story, the one about the shoemaker and the elves. I saw myself as one of the elves making the shoes. But I misremembered the Brothers Grimm story as the shoemaker and the gnomes, and from that came the portmanteau of Shoegnome (and yes it’s Shoegnome, not ShoeGnome or Shoe Gnome). At first the word was a verb: shoegnoming. I’d come home from work and tell my wife “I did a lot of shoegnoming today.” It was shorthand for a long day of problem solving and making others look good. Eventually the term morphed into a noun.

When it came time to name my company, there was no question what the name would be. And in the name is also the mission of Shoegnome: to help others. But it is also a tweaking of the story, and an evolution of my earlier experiences. The goal is to help and teach so that the shoegnomes aren’t needed; the goal is to give the cobblers and shoemakers self-sufficiency. And of course also make sure all those people making shoes are using the smartest tools possible. And using their time as wisely as possible…but we’re not talking about shoes anymore. We’re talking about Architecture. And a lot of other things as well. It’s all nicely summed up in the two-tweet version of the original fairytale:

A poor cobbler had enough leather for one pair of shoes. He left it out overnight and returned to find shoes so beautiful a customer paid him double their price.

The cobbler, thinking carefully, reinvested the money and learned to make beautiful shoes. His reputation grew and he prospered thereafter.

If you want, you can read the complete fairytale here. This all leads to one more question: why did I form the company in the first place? Well I’ll tell you more about that later this year, probably. That’s a good story too. And factors into some other, more architecturally focused endeavors I have in the works.

My dad and grandfather standing in the rubble. This image reminds me that my grandparents drove down after the tornado from Newton, Massachusetts. They were living just 2 1/2 miles from where I live today…

Read more about the F4 tornado that my mom and brothers only survived through a combination of luck and my mom’s quick thinking to get my brothers into the kitchen with her when the windows blew in and the power went out moments before the world became surreal and beyond comprehension.

Some day I need to get my brothers and mom to share all the details of this story. And of course my dad too; he was a few towns away and has his own tales to tell from that improbable day. If I ever do share more of the story, you can bet if you follow Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and RSS feed you’ll hear about it. But probably not if you join the LinkedIN group; that focuses on the future of architecture and the built environment.


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