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Archive for November, 2011

There was an excellent article in Barron’s last week about John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market. (Barron’s, 1/21/2011, p. 54-55)

Mackey started life as a sort of hippy and a full-throated socialist after he dropped out of the University of Texas in 1977.  He worked as a busboy, bartender, waiter, and dishwasher in Austin, Texas, and finally as an assistant manager at a health food store.  That last position made a lot of sense since he was already a committed vegan.  The vegan identity is about his only original identity that hasn’t been changed fundamentally by his entrepreneurial journey.

I was surprised that his story is in many ways parallel to my own.  I too started as a Socialist (Norman Thomas, head of the US Socialist Party, gave seminars in my parents living room) and made my way to becoming a committed libertarian capitalist.  But mostly we share a primary interest in entrepreneurship as a source of salvation and dynamic becoming, more than as a money multiplier.  This latter is certainly the true joy and satisfaction of entrepreneurship for me.

As Mackey puts it, he started to change his philosophy when he had to meet his first payroll.  Here’s what he says:

“I had imbibed the liberal ethos of Austin, and the general thinking about inequality of wealth, and that there are all these greedy business people out there that take too much of the pie for themselves, and that we would have a much more just society if we all shared, until I started a business and found out I was now one of the greedy, selfish people, yet I wasn’t making any money, and I had to meet a payroll every week.  And I had all these ideals that came crashing down.”

Mackey has concluded that the really great motivator of most entrepreneurs is not ultimately money  but meaning.  (In this sense he remains true to his idealist, socialist roots, including his concern about the unfairness of income inequality.)  I agree with this. To this point, Mackey says the following:

“There is this common belief in our culture and also in the business schools themselves, that business is just about money, and if you are doing it, then you’re basically a sellout. I talk about purpose, and how business creates value with a mission- and that you can also make a lot of money doing it.  Whole Foods has proven you can do both.”

Mackey is coming out with a book next year called Conscious Capitalism, which outlines his  business and life philosophy.  I look forward to it.

Entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki says, “The best reason to start an organization is to make meaning–to create a product or service to make the world a better place.”

Thanks, Guy.  That seems about right to me.  I think John Mackey would agree

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Ricky Nelson wrote a hit song called Garden Party in 1972.  The chorus and conclusion of the song goes like this:

“You see, you can’t please everyone, So you got to please yourself.”

I mentioned last week that I don’t consider myself a very good businessman, but my many business deficiencies have been compensated for over the years by the associates who have been drawn to work at my company and in the business community I have made in 17 years as head of my outsourced executive sales firm Corporate Rain International.

However, while I am a flawed businessman, I am a wildly successful entrepreneur. How is that?  Well, it is because I have achieved exactly what I intended through my adventure in entrepreneurship.  It can be judged by time and by others whether I have created a long-term viable capitalist entity, but I genuinely don’t much care whether I’ve created a profitable institution for the ages or not.  I’m in business because it makes me happy and free.  It’s a gas.  It’s a joy.  It’s an ecstasy of self-discovery.  It’s infinitely not boring.  It is healing and whole-making.

My personal goals have never been financial, though I’ve made more than a living through the years.  What I knew when I started my company in 1996 were my personal values and the tone of service I wanted my company to emanate.  I knew I wanted to create a community I could comfortably live in, a horizontal company inhabited by peers and fellow travelers, both in my associates and in my clients.  I came out of a two decade personal history of failure in four different careers before founding my firm.  I had also had issues with three different addictions.  (In fact, my entrepreneurial success came directly out of disciplines developed and informed by the recovery from these addictions.  Finding a comfortable center in my work was an essential part of that recovery.)

If truth be told, I’m not especially interested in business, per se.  I have no desire to be a master of the universe.  What I desire is to be happy, centered, and whole, while running a healthy enterprise with integrity and freedom, and offering a real needed service to the world.  Those are my reasons to be an entrepreneur and if I went out of business tomorrow it would in no way adumbrate my personal sense of success and achievement as an entrepreneur.

(If you get a chance and are interested in this topic, take a look at a recent book called The Big Enough Company (Portfolio/Penguin–2011) by Amy Abrams and Adelaide Lancaster.  It’s written for women, but I loved it.)

So for me, entrepreneurship is, fundamentally, non-quantifiably personal and spiritual in its rewards, particularly in its ability to impart freedom and inner wholeness.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so passionately at the end of his “I Have a Dream” speech,  “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Amen, Brother Martin.

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I’m pretty sure it helps to be a little crazy if you want to be an entrepreneur.  I suspect I am.

I am personally not the world’s best businessman.  I’m just not.  Fortunately, a series of gifted associates have always been able to buttress my considerable dearth of quotidian business skills at my executive sales outsourcing firm Corporate Rain International.

Part of the inadequacy of my basic business backgrounding is chosen.  I simply don’t enjoy administration, spreadsheets,  human resources, and quantitative analysis.  What does interest me are the more elusive values of entrepreneurship–the envisioning, the strategy, the philosophy, the ethics and the collegiality of it.  What I want out of my business is no less than freedom, truth and salvation.  I want entrance into that metaphorical Golden City On The Hill, what Shakespeare calls “the brightest heaven of invention.” (Henry V, Act One, Prologue)  I think great entrepreneurs (which I am most assuredly not one) have this procrustean longing and intent.  In this myopically secular age, many business founders are perhaps inchoately and unconsciously involved in a closeted, low level search for God.

Certainly that was the case with Steve Jobs.  Walter Isaacson has just written a biography of Jobs.  (I have not yet read his book, but only read criticism and seen 60 Minutes on the book.)  But one thing that struck me from reportage was that Jobs was more than a bit nuts.  And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Maureen Dowd, in a NY Times op-ed on October 26, referred to Jobs as a “monstre sacre.”  She says, “…his life sounded like the darkest hell of volatility,” a bipolar madness.

I have already talked about Jobs as an artist in a posting on October 11, but he was also a avid spiritual searcher and seeker of ultimate truth.  Because he sought to find his spiritual center in his business, doesn’t mean he was a nice man.  He was difficult, bullying, and arrogant.  His spiritual entrepreneurial journey did not make him Mother Theresa.  Yet like Moses, Jesus and Captain Kirk he went boldly where no man had gone before.  Ultimately his business journey was a uniquely autodidactic search for personal meaning and God in a non-religious age.

Here is what Plato, by way of Socrates, said about poetry, but it could apply equally to the heart of the entrepreneur.

“…if any man come to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought naught by the poetry of madness…”

Thank you, Plato.

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I went to my fall church fair last Saturday and I bought a bunch of old books.  Of all things, I, most unexpectedly, found a simple and elegant riposte therein to the many negative comments about business, greed, and venality coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  And particularly as these calumnies relate to my prime interest–the small businessman and the entrepreneur.

As those who follow this blog regularly know, I recently railed against the mantra of media and the present government casting me and my confreres as evil doers.  (See posting of October 25–Animal Spirits and Entrepreneurship)  Most of the regulation and taxation and rhetoric of the last three years is aimed squarely at “millionaires and billionaires” like me, not at fat cats.  (If they come looking for my millions and billions they will be sorely disappointed.)

I personally quite agree with Occupy Wall Street about payoffs and bailouts to the big banks.  But why is the practical result of this animosity punitive to creative small capitalists?  Why not Jeffrey Immelt, John Corzine, Ken Chenault, George Kaiser, et. al., oligarchs who led companies that paid no tax while reaping huge government benefits?  Why me, dammit?

So what did I unexpectedly find in a book at my church fair?  A profound quote from Adam Smith, Frederick Hayeck, or Milton Friedman?  Nah.  I discovered an answer to Occupy Wall Street in these simple words from Abraham Lincoln, written just before his assasination.  (Quoted by Carl Van Doren in a 1942 compilation called, The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln.)

“The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations and tongues, and kindreds.  Nor should this lead to a war upon property, or the owners of property.  Property is the fruit of labor; property is desirable; it is a positive good in the world.  That one should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.  Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

Abraham Lincoln, philosopher of entrepreneurship.  Thanks, Abe.

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This is a new time for sales.  The rules, they are a changin’.  The old verities are being heavily and quickly abridged by a combination of fiscal caution, increased workloads, and technological innovation.

Austerity has become a particular byword for business and government in the last two years.  And nowhere is it more noticeable than in executive sales.  For example, at my own seventeen year old executive sales outsourcing firm, Corporate Rain International, I’ve never seen such a timidity among real decision-makers at corporations.  Caution and conservatism reign supreme.  In fact, there is a palpable hesitancy in the air from top to bottom about anything that requires more than a short-term commitment—in government, in the private sector, in education, politics, art, and media.

Internationally these jitters are taking the form of violent and non-violent mass protests.  As much as anything, I think these actions are fueled by simple fear of the future and fear of the unknown, an inchoate anger at forces beyond our control and a distrust of uncertain change.  Greece, Thailand, and the Arab world have had violence in the streets and Wall Street is under duress from the unfocused, confusing protests in Zuccotti Park.

Individual executives are stressed too, often groaning under twice their previous workload with half the staff.  Annecdotally, my next door neighbor is vice-president of a large non-profit in NYC.  Her staff has been cut from 15 to 3 this year with no change in workload.  Though experienced and competent she is overwhelmed.  I find this is a very common tale these days.

One result of this is an increasing premium on executive time.  Decision makers will not take meetings unless these meetings are very focused and address specific needs with a clear ROI objective.  Also, if your product is perceived as commoditized you are dead, brother.

It is also not easy to get a hearing for the new, the magical, the inspired, the groundbreaking, either.  When executives are overworked with reduced budgets and scared of losing their jobs, the salesman must be succinct, soothing, efficient and yet aggressive and compelling—all at the same time.  No easy task.  Caution about taking any risk is redoubled in the harsh dawning of economic bleakness.  Buyers and decision-makers are frequently deer immobilized in the head lights.

As Edmund Burke put it in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756),  “No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”  Thanks Edmund.

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