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The Invisible Entrepreneur: David M. M. Taffet’s Success Story, and His New Fort Worth-Based Company Petal

Author:

Trevor Whalen (Aug-7th)

David M. M. Taffet, Invisible Entrepreneur, Petal
David M. M. Taffet's Super Bowl Hunch, and an Idea Approved by Rachael Ray (00:03:48)

David M. M. Taffet has over 30 years of experience building companies and turning organizations around. He has been to 53 countries and all 50 U.S. states, and is now founding a tech company in Fort Worth. This is Petal, whose offering is a waste-freezing trash bin that helps stop the spread of germs and odor.

While that product sounds interesting enough, all the more inspiring is David himself. The inspiration behind the globe-travelling entrepreneur is simply one motivation: a love for people. 

“I believe in helping humans achieve a level of excellence that they never thought possible. And what was once their ceiling that they broke through is now their floor.”

David M. M. Taffet picture, Petal
David M. M. Taffet's central drive in life: "People."

He serves the people in his personal life, his professional life, and the communities around him:

“I do it for the benefit of the people in my life, which are both professional and personal … and also for the communities we serve, which sometimes are customers, and sometimes it's part of the overarching community, if you think about social impact. Every single motivation comes down to a love for people.”

This post is part of a series for AccelerateDFW's Storytelling initiative. For more insights on entrepreneurs in DFW and beyond, visit the Storytelling page.

David has worked with a wide variety and a high number of people. His experiences have taught him that, as he said, there is no one type or basic category of person. In any given situation, he is excited to learn about the persons involved and understanding what he can do to help them. What matters is the project they are doing together, how they are accomplishing it, and how they are enjoying their time together.

Such a predisposition does not lead to naiveté. He does have a few rules. 

“There can be no toxicity. There can be no obstruction. And there can be no pettiness. If I find any of the three those people are immediately escorted out and I generally find the people who stay are joyous and really excited.”

People management can be a daunting endeavor, but David seems to have an instinct towards connecting with the right people and empowering them to be the best they can be.

“Childlike Curiosity”

David has built a lot of companies and a lot of teams. What are his success metrics? How does he determine good ideas from bad ones?

He does not rely solely on accumulated expertise, but approaches new situations openly.

“I approach everything with a childlike curiosity and absolute humility," David says, "and remind myself I know nothing, even in the instances where I might know something. And what I do, instead of deciding what I think is right, is I seek external affirmation of the ideas that I think have legs.”

Some amount of instincts and past experiences may come into play, but David knows he is not the market, so looks for people in the market who can affirm if the idea he is pursuing is a good one. He then sticks with the idea as long as it stays afloat, but once he senses it won’t succeed, he’ll shutter it. He bears humility and decisiveness. 

“I believe in helping humans achieve a level of excellence that they never thought possible. And what was once their ceiling that they broke through is now their floor.”

Meet Petal-David MM Taffet Christie Zwahlen
David M. M. Taffet and his wife Christie Zwahlen.

He has a similar approach when he leads turnarounds. He wants to first build a sufficient understanding of the entire picture. This is in contrast with what others in his position have done, those who, according to David, focus on the numbers and instill discipline from an autocratic perspective. 

When David is brought in to turnaround a company, he first interviews everyone in the company. This means every single person – from the janitor to the CEO.

He explained his approach:

“And when I'm doing it, I'm looking for the answer. But it's not the answer as to like, what's the magic bullet that’s going to make this successful? The answer is, who is obstructing this. Who is toxic. Who is making this environment awful so that we cannot function. And I look for what I refer to as the sacred cows, and those are the people that have enormous egos. And now that I'm in Texas, I can say freely, we kill cows. Gone – I fire them. They’re done. And then I look to the people who are insidious and hiding behind the scenes and obstructing and making people's lives difficult and rumor mongering – fired. They're gone. And then I look for the people who've been held down or not recognized, I call them my rock stars, my undiscovered rock stars, and I elevate them.” In one example, he fired a CEO and promoted the executive secretary to EVP of all product development. 

He admits he isn’t an expert about the companies he’s taken over, ranging from industries like software development to biometrics. He is “industry agnostic” – he cares about the people, and to understand the business, he goes to them. 

Moving throughout industries and businesses has required David to work in various roles. He's been a lawyer, an investment banker, and a consultant, among others. Such transitioning requires fluidity and several skills and tools that can be used at any given time. It's a Swiss Army knife approach.

“And what I do is I allow myself to stay open,” David said, “and I see things for exactly what they are. I determine whether or not there is something I could do or should do to change it. I look to see what it could become and then I determine if it's worth the effort. And if it is worth the effort, then I bring to bear the skills and experience that are central for that moment, for that objective.”

He works from the background, understanding everything he can, before acting of his own accord.

Calm Within Crisis

David has also worked successfully through major crises. He has founded companies during the aftermath of 9/11, the Great Recession, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. With the steel nerve of a businessperson who refuses to stop, he looks for opportunities exposed by chaos.

As he said:

“I think if you keep your emotions out of the tragedy … that you can see things with a fresh perspective and recognize an opportunity that others are missing. And so I don't see any of those events as the end of the world. But I see it as an opportunity to fill a gap that others might have created by vacating. … I would just say that in all three instances [9/11, Great Recession, and COVID-19. – ed.], I had to make a very concerted effort to stay present and not allow my emotion or others’ emotions to dictate my actions and to look with a critical eye to what is available and necessary now.”

He was already launching Petal before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis of a quickly spreading contagion has made his pitch easier. 

Petal, in David’s words, is a “category killer.” It’s intended to fundamentally alter how the general public views waste disposal. But in normal times, arguing for someone to purchase a germ-freezing garbage can could be a great burden. Now, as just about every single person is aware of germs and the spread of contagions, a germ-destroying trash can makes sense.

David M. M. Taffet Petal 16x9 Nursery
Petal's germ-freezing trash bin is to be a "category killer" and replace traditional disposal methods.
 

There are also other benefits, as David explained:

“What we had to do is educate the public, and educating in this instance as a direct-to-consumer also means we have to reach them, and what COVID-19 did for us is it reduced the cost of advertising significantly because there are no concerts, there are no sports, there's no theater. There's nothing out there that's competing for advertising dollars. 

“The second thing it did with shelter in place orders, is it obligated entire populations to learn how to shop online, which was going to be a hurdle to reach some of our target market.

“And the third thing it did, which was really very important for the world to begin with, but really important for our business too, is that I no longer need to explain the importance of quarantining germs. Everyone knows why you want to stop the festering and spreading of germs.”

 

It’s looking for this kind of silver lining that keeps David going even when circumstances become tough.

"I had to make a very concerted effort to stay present and not allow my emotion or others’ emotions to dictate my actions and to look with a critical eye to what is available and necessary now."

Not everything has been positive, of course. Petal can’t make videos in-studio or make photographs with people, and the lockdown prevented them from creating certain assets, but, as David pointed out, this is what everyone else in the world was suffering. He didn’t get dragged down by the negatives, and still saw the openings that were suddenly apparent. 

For an example of a company David founded during a crisis, give the accompanying podcast a listen!

Life’s Lessons

David used one word to describe his life – hardships and successes alike – from a bird’s-eye-view: “Heavy.” He has a very clear understanding of discomfort and hardship. Strenuous times beget new opportunities.

“I truly believe that all growth, whether we talk about physical fitness, emotional growth, or company development, has huge points of pain and discomfort,” he said. “And if you see those as negatives and you try to avoid them and seek comfort, you will always be mediocre. You are never going to achieve excellence. So, from where I sit, that discomfort that might be beguiling to others is really inspiring to me.”

When David was young, his dad was killed in Vietnam. The devastation from this loss changed him forever: "I knew that if I could survive something of that magnitude that there would be almost nothing in life that could take me down.”

A military upbringing shaped David in other ways. His step dad was a fighter pilot, and they moved homes around every six months to a year. David went to three different schools for both high school and junior high, and with every move had to completely start over. 

“I really believe it's because of how I grew up with no real foundation that I've been able to find my footing in my sense of self,” he says. He is able to work from self-motivation, without a boss, to the benefit of his family and his business teams. 

“But there's nothing about this path that's easy, which is why all of it is so awesome when you consider that discomfort leads to growth. So if I were to look at it across the board, it would be deep appreciation for the pain and gain.”

He wears all of his “badges of honor”, as he calls them, whether it came from his father’s death or, as he also referenced, periods of “hunger”, “absolute poverty” and “emotional wreckage.”

“I truly believe that all growth, whether we talk about physical fitness, emotional growth, or company development, has huge points of pain and discomfort. And if you see those as negatives and you try to avoid them and seek comfort, you will always be mediocre."

Looking at his success, one would never know. The other side to a heavy life of hardship is a sharpened commitment to success. 

Cowtown's New Clean

When I first read about David M. M. Taffet, it was in a Dallas Innovates article describing his startup in Fort Worth. The article included this quote from David: “Fort Worth made perfect sense for us … There’s no other place we’d rather be.” What attracted him to Cowtown?

Petal, revolutionary waste bin, David M. M. Taffet
For Taffet, Fort Worth was an obvious choice for Petal.

First, Taffet and team devised a plan whereby they would manufacture out of Mexico and the United States, and then they would distribute out of the U.S. to Canada and Mexico. Fort Worth made sense for this because the city has a trade arrangement with Mexico. Apparently, from Fort Worth you can conduct trade with Mexico as if you’re on the border. Plus, in terms of transportation, Fort Worth lies at the center of the U.S.

But how could Fort Worth give Petal an opportunity to live out its mission beyond this practicality? 

“[T]here are significant parts of Fort Worth that are still growing, and still trying to acclimate communities that haven't become part of the greater part of Fort Worth, and we intend to headquarter in an Enterprise zone so that we can help develop the neighborhoods that we enter, and this would be sixth, seventh, eighth time I made this type of decision, to go into a city’s urban area where we felt we could make a bigger difference.”

In line with David’s people-centric philosophy, he wants to empower people in Fort Worth, so the city has more than practical benefit. Because David saw such growth potential in Fort Worth, Cowtown could be the site of a new definition of effective waste disposal.

The Invisible Photographer

Many of us may have side passions – little hobbies we do in our spare time. We may dream of finding a full-time job doing what we love for a living. But barring this, we can find ways our hobbies bolster our career, whether our career is directly related to our hobbies or not. 

For David, photography is a side passion. He used his first camera at age eight – the original Nikon F – and since has been an avid photographer. 

David M. M. Taffet, Invisible Man Photography, law, Petal
Taffet took this picture during a Second Line in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Photo by David M. M. Taffet, courtesy Invisible Man Photography.

The worlds he enters as a photographer are similar to the ambiguous scenarios he encounters in business. He uses his camera “as a ticket for access to communities” where otherwise he may not have been welcomed. 

He has traveled across the globe through “hundreds” of cities and towns. This has allowed him to understand the commonalities between humans throughout different cultures. 

David calls his photography work “Invisible Man Photography”. While taking pictures, he is in the background, observing, taking in the scene, wanting to understand and see everyone for who they are, with as open a mind as possible. When people invite him into their communities, they no longer pay him attention. He’s a photographer, and they just let him do his work. 

“I find that it gives me a great sense of the same values I described as to what is my motivation about business ... an awareness of people. And I try to tell their stories in a very sensitive, non-judgmental and loving way.”

What he does in photography is similar to what he does in the business world. His business acumen is like his camera as he seeks to capture insights of people and situations. 

David is the Invisible Entrepreneur, the conductor in the background. He works with people and empowers them, accomplishing great things through teams and inner perseverance. A challenging upbringing and the weight of loss early on taught him the hard way how to drive forward, find success, and never give up.

The header image for this story is by David M. M. Taffet, courtesy Invisible Man Photography.

Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.). The audio in the podcast may have also been edited to remove chit-chat phrases, repeated words or long periods of silence.