“I’ve always led my life and company with the notion of ‘giving more than you take.'”
Harry Brelsford is a long-time Seattle technology entrepreneur who established “SMB Nation” a community of computer consultants, resellers and Managed Services Providers (MSPs) in the late 1990’s which focused on Microsoft Windows Small Business Server. In Harry’s own words, the organization’s goal has been to “sustain this ‘enthusiastic geek’ community with business, technology and community involvement activities.’
Before the pandemic hit, Harry usually spent about half of his work time traveling for business — and sheltering in place has been a drastically different experience. Needless to say, he had a lot more time on his hands and decided to do something meaningful with it.
So, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’s strict shelter in place orders, from the comforts of his 40-acre llama ranch, Harry spearheaded a campaign, formally launched with the support of SMB Nation called “One Million Smiles” — an organized movement carried out by community volunteer efforts to send cheerful greeting cards to elderly folks who are sheltering in-place at assisted living centers.
As any entrepreneurial pursuit, what seems straightforward from the outside oftentimes has many complicated moving parts underneath the surface. From the importance of remaining mindful of privacy and safety practices issues, to planning the logistics of the campaign, training volunteers, and the ongoing brainstorming sessions to create snappy slogans to adorn the cards — it was a tireless effort.
Harry is an enthusiastic leader and philanthropist at heart. In his COVID Chronicle below, he details how he’s provided direction to his technology community on how to effectively protect yourself — and your data — while working from home, in addition to contributing to two other community outreach programs alongside the One Million Smiles Campaign (virtual field trips for children to a Texas llama ranch, and working with the National Cristina Foundation to collect computer equipment to be refurbished/distributed to underserved communities).
Read the story of Harry and the One Million Smiles campaign, below:
Could you share a bit about how you came up with the idea for the One Million Smiles campaign and the background behind it?
“The idea came from Elisabeth Vanderveldt at Microsoft Canada who made a single post on a social media site (I believe it was LinkedIn) about sending cheerful greeting cards to the elderly who are sheltering in-place at assisted living centers during the pandemic.
I responded asking if she could mail a card to my 90-year old Mom in Seattle. One thing led to another and with Vanderveldt’s encouragement, One Million Smiles was launched by SMB Nation. The idea is that our 49,500 community members would send around 20-cards each leading to One Million Smiles! This is a community volunteer effort…”
Could you share a bit about your experience working on the campaign?
“Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, it’s harder than it looks. One the surface its very simple. Get a greeting card, write a nice note, and mail it to a senior citizen at an assisted living center. But the more we got into it, the more complex it became…. “Stage 1” was just to get good vibes going with greeting cards. Simple enough…
But there are privacy issues such as Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as knowing the card recipients name in a health care facility (we suggest addressing the cards generically). There were opt-in permission issues where we worked with the activity coordinator at numerous assisted living centers to receive permission and approval to participate in One Million Smiles. There are safety issues like not licking the envelops shut (and mailing one large glue-sealed envelop to the activity director at the assisted living centers. There was necessary coordinate to train the activities directors on how to distribute the greeting cards to residents, etc.
Then, we had to recruit SMB Nation members and others to participate so we created a short resource kit with content examples (“Well 2020 has been a flop…can’t wait until we can dance the Bunny Hop again”) and suggestions (one team had a safe wine tasting party to write out cards; another family of four made this a family event).
In “Phase 2” we’d like to see our SMB Nation members more strongly engage their children who are now remote based at home for school to accelerate the card writing campaigns. We’d like to see about using online conferencing platforms to have live chats with seniors. Stay tuned!”
What’s the biggest challenge you feel like you’ve personally faced during quarantine/the COVID crisis?
“This last year has had a few personal challenges in my family life as I lost my wife in mid-2019 after a very short cancer battle. So I’ve been focusing on positivity as the way to move forward. And then the pandemic hit resulting in my self-isolation and I’m feeling that same kinda “Grief Brain” all over again (and as the anniversary of her passing approaches) where my memory, concentration and cognition are affected. I briefly got in the bad habit of watching cable news during the day early in the pandemic that only accelerate my anxiety levels and such. Some I’m listening to music again…”
Has this experience in any way changed the way that you order your priorities in life?
“I’d say its compounded my efforts to live in the present as I enter the next quarter of my technology career…send a greeting card is an immediate verb – its something I can do NOW and I like things that are actionable.”
Has this travel ban/quarantine situation impacted any important plans you had laid out for the near future?
“Yes. My company was going to hold a two-day in-person technology conference in Denver on June 1-2, 2020. In late February we shifted that to an online conference that was four late afternoon (3-hours a day). It just wasn’t the same as people want to be with people at in-person conferences. But everyone from the attendees to speakers were very understanding and we hope to be on the road in 2021 again.
Travel is a big part of my career and aside from a short flight from Austin to Seattle in mid-April, I’ve not had any travel this year (I normally travel almost 50% of the time).”
Where are you living right now/who have you been quarantining with?
“The first part of the pandemic was spent on a 40-acre Llama Ranch outside Austin, TX. I then returned to my Seattle home for the summer. It’s just me myself and I. I wish I had my dog Astro, an English Springer Spaniel we lost in late 2018. I’ve got cabin fever!”
What has your community been doing to fight the rate of transmission?
“Great question — and we are doing so much. My community of technology professionals was on the ready and still very busy with remote work setups for non-essential worker and their kids need resources right now to remain employed and be productive.
Besides safely and securely setting up home-based offices, we’re positively contributing to social distancing measures and reducing travel/trips to flatten the curve. The main things about remote work scenarios (and setting up the work spaces safely) are:
- Hygiene, including masks and gloves
- Setting up the technology infrastructure to accommodate the demands of online conferencing and other work from home tools.
- Cybersecurity – it’s part of the mix. This include training end users not to “click the link” in pandemic scam emails and other spear fishing attacks. Proper security also means fewer trips and visits from the on-site technicians (a large part of our demographic)
- Remote Management and Monitoring – using remote tools to minimize travel and on-site visit
- Protection – data protection is essential
Read more about what Harry wrote in regards to giving direction to his community on remote work, here.
What has been your general daily routine so far during the pandemic?
“Actually it hasn’t changed significantly, as my company has worked remotely from home for the past six years. But all of us have more time on our hands. So I’m writing my 23rd book in the morning hours, called “The Pocket MBA” to be released Labor Day 2020 to help newly displaced workers become instant entrepreneurs (one underlying concept is there are no job in the new normal if you are over 50-years old). Then I work “inside” SMB Nation for much of the day, followed by one or two hours “outside” my company on a couple startups.”
What have you been doing to keep your spirits up on a day-to-day basis?
“Aside from a daily workout (such as a walk or at home personal training regime), I’m focused on three community outreach programs. In addition to One Million Smile, theres:
- Donate Technology: I’ve been working with the National Cristina Foundation to collect computer equipment to be refurbished and distributed to underserved communities such as low-income families with school aged children engage in distance learning right now
- Virtual Field Trips to a Texas Llama Ranch: I’ve given three virtual field trips to K-5 students in Alaska, Washington and Texas to help teachers deliver meaningful content to their remote students.
Is there anything you feel that this experience has taught you that you’d like to share as inspiration?
“Well, I’ve always led my life and company with the notion of ‘giving more than you take.’ Plus, I’ve drafted behind Bill and Melinda Gates in their community involvement (I call it the Seattle Style of Giving Back – its our culture up here in the tech sector).
In a more humorous explanation, I’d say One Million smiles has taught me to be less evil (LOL) – I actually said that to a client the other day. But seriously – the one thing I can do right here right now is to help my community be less mopey and more positive…it’s all we got!”
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