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Archive for March, 2012

My fellow entrepreneurs:  Go see The Hunger Games right away.

Early last year I saw a good little art movie called Winter’s Bone.  It starred a fantastic parvenu actress named Jennifer Lawrence.  Last Friday I saw she was in a new movie called The Hunger Games, so I skipped out of work early to go see it.

The movie has been marketed as a juvenile adventure entertainment and love story, ala the Twilight series or Spiderman.  Lawrence plays the heroine, “Katniss Everdeen.”   She is (again) wonderful.  But what startled me was that The Hunger Games spoke to my inner entrepreneur.

The story is essentially a dire fairy tale taking place in a futuristic, statist USA that has taken the reality show to its gladiatorial apotheosis.  Once a year 24 boys and girls fight to the death on TV in a computer controlled artificial wilderness.  There can be only one victor, one survivor.

The world has become a cowed and colorless place, tightly controlled and poverty stricken—a drab place without joy and without freedom.  At the top if this Orwellian dystopia is a decadent elite.  The movie doesn’t make clear who this garish group is, but to my mind they represent a bureaucratic plutocracy run amok.

For me the movie is a clear cautionary tale about the final destination of a suffocated society with no place for the unfettered, generative spirit that is the animating trope of entrepreneurship, as well as art, religion, and human meaning.  The reviews I read see The Hunger Games more as a satire on the cosmic emptiness of the reality show format and its dumbing down effect on an enthralled and voyeuristic public. Which it is.  But its philosophic underpinnings are, to my eye, unquestionably libertarian.  Think of it as a mesmerizing crossbreed entertainment somewhere between Lord of the Flies, Atlas Shrugged, and a febrile Roman spectacle.

As an observing small businessman who has found both salvation and succor in entrepreneurship, the mounting statism of the last three years is more than alarming.  It feels like a first, but irrevocable, step into a brave new world of iron-fisted, top-down authoritarianism, that is inimical to the chaotic free enterprise witches’ brew which has nurtured and enabled the emergence of the Steve Jobses, the John Mackeys, the Henry Fords, the Howard Schultzes, the Bill Gates, et. al.—not to mention the plethora of bit players that constitute the vast multitude of creative small businessmen.

For me, The Hunger Games is a potent moral fable warning of the danger of fascism and totalitarianism in its faceless, oligarchic form:  the anonymous tyranny  of seemingly benign, but unaccountable, bureaucrats.  The implication of the current US government’s voracious attempt to gather more and more power unto itself by way of “Czars”  and appointive panels, who know better what is good for us all than we ourselves, could be a first step on the road to a well-intended but ultimately malevolent future.  The philosophic underpinnings of ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank are not too disparate from the assumptions of The Capitol, the make-believe locale where Katnis Everdeen is taken to prepare for her Hunger Games ordeal.

At any rate, as an entrepreneur, I found The Hunger Games to be thought provoking as well as  entertaining.

As Katnis’  friend Peeta says, defining his motivation to fight in the contest, “[I fight] to show them they don’t own me.”  I’m not sure that is too far from the motivation of many entrepreneurs.

Thank you, Katnis and Peeta.  Thank you, Hunger Games.

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Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, is reported to have said, “Getting information on the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hose.”

I must admit I resent the Internet and its brilliant bastard children, social media.  I resent their time wasting omnipresence. I resent their unfocusing distraction.  I resent their inescapable intrusions. I resent their vitiation of the rich and fecund experience of a truly lived business life.  And I resent erasing 100 emails a day.  Keeping up with it all often makes me feel like a husk of myself.

But let me not descend into the emotionally satisfying, but not terribly useful, maw of a Luddite screed.  Suffice it to say that, pro or con, our manic connectivity and our cyber hyperactivity have major implications for the creative entrepreneur.  They are a grace and a damnation.  My struggle is how to get more of the former and less of the latter.

What’s a girl to do, my brothers and sisters?

I was intrigued to read one entrepreneur’s partial answer in Crains’ OnLine last month.  (Feb. 29, 2012)  Jessica Rovello, President and Co-Founder of Arkadium, a ten year old game developer states, “Email gives people a form of business attention disorder so that whatever comes into your inbox trumps anything else you’re working on.”  Her answer?  Only look at emails four times a day for 15 or 30 minutes and take one of four actions:

  1. Reply to anything needing immediate response.
  2. Forward messages that can be handled by someone else.
  3. Quickly delete irrelevant email.
  4. Postpone for future consideration when appropriate.

If you want to read more on this subject try The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, both published in 2011.

Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, wouldn’t have a telephone in his office. Said it was too distracting. Though I didn’t invent the Internet (Al Gore did that), I find Mr. Bell’s reaction to his own revolutionary and disruptive invention somehow comforting.

Thank you, Alexander.

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At least half my days are spent sitting at my desk seven to eight hours. I’ve never thought much about it in my 17 years leading Corporate Rain International, my executive sales outsourcing firm, other than occasionally noticing a bit of a headache late in the day.

Until now.

I was riding Metro North to Grand Central Station last month and I idly picked up a local Connecticutt newspaper someone had left on the seat beside me. The headline read, “Don’t Take Work Sitting Down!” What I read stunned me. What I read was that just working daily at your desk may kill you.

Yup. A recent study by the American Heart Association states that sitting at your desk is anything but benign. What you are doing right now reading this blog may be more dangerous to your health than cancer, high cholesterol, overweight, or smoking. That’s right. Regularly sitting for long periods is just as damaging to your health as these more publicized maladies.

And the AHA is not alone in it’s warning. The American Cancer Society researchers recently found that more time sitting was associated with higher death rate. Over 13 years 123,000 people were followed. It turns out that men who sat more than six hours a day were 18% more likely to die than those who sat three hours or less.

Long stretches of inertia affect insulin’s effectiveness, decrease good cholesterol, and slow metabolism. It increases risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

But, you may say, I work out regularly at the gym. Certainly that must immunize me to sedentary health damage? Nope. Dr. Steven Kunis, the medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation lab in Bridgeport, CT states, “Sitting for long periods of time negates the effects of exercise.” (Connecticutt Post, Feb. 15, 2012, Section C)

So get off your ass, my brothers and sisters. Here’s what I’ve started doing. It’s pretty simple and obvious. Mostly it’s a matter of just stopping to do it. I have the “just one more thing” syndrome that often becomes 20 more things and three hours of sitting without break regardless of my intentions.

  1. I try to get up and walk around every hour or so.
  2. Do clenching exercises at my desk.
  3. Do a set of sit-ups and push-ups on my officer floor.
  4. Drink lots of water. It forces me to get up and pee pretty often.
  5. Take occasional phone calls standing.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit.”

Thanks, Friedrich.

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I just finished reading a book called Abundance:  The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It’s great.  It is a powerful and compelling palliative for the pessimism and spiritual malaise of our current business trope.  And offers a tonic for the psyche of entrepreneurship.

This book is full of counterintuitive things that are quite astonishing. Essentially the Diamandis/Kotler message is one of almost messianic, but not irrational, faith in the future. Particularly faith in technology and entrepreneurship.  Let me relate just two quick examples.

Abundance cites the wondrous capabilities of the cell phone.  It points out that a Masai warrior with a cell phone in the remotest part of Africa, with access to Google, has better telecom abilities than the President of the United States did 15 years ago. Abundance posits that, by the end of 2013, 75% or so of world population will have access to instantaneous, low-cost communications of every kind.

Or how about this? Diamandis/Kotler point out that, of every word and image recorded from the beginning of civilization to 2003, the total information could be recorded on five exabytes.  (An exabyte is one billion gigabytes or one quintillion bytes.  Whatever that means.  Numbers like these are beyond my ken or imagining.)  But that is nothing.  Between 2003 and 2010, five exabytes of digital information were produced every two days.  Abundance predicts we will be producing–get this–five exabytes every ten minutes by 2013.

Diamandis/Kotler convincingly predict the end of poverty!  At our current rate poverty will mostly be a thing of the past by 2035.  The logic being that poverty has decreased by half since the 1950s.  They point out that groceries cost 13 times less than in 1860.  They predict 200 years of progress in the next 20 years.

SO WHAT DOES THIS BOOK SPECIFICALLY SAY TO YOU AND ME, THE ENTREPRENEURS?

Well, it says three compellingly convincing things:

  1. There is hope.  In the midst of current cultural pessimism about the future, every entrepreneur I know is involved with trying to do the impossible every day.  That impossible thing is creating something out of nothing.  Healthy entrepreneurship is nurtured in a petree dish of passionate hope and optimism.
  2. Abundance gives strong quantitative evidence that entrepreneurs and innovators will inexorably succeed for all mankind, if not excessively hindered by politics and bureaucracy.
  3. With heavy scholarly documentation Diamandis/Kotler point out that negative bias is a tendency of human beings (including entrepreneurs.) Their overarching point is that optimism is a much more logical and accurate way to see the world.

If you wish to get a more global, historical view on this subject, please read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (2010–Harper Collins.)  It’s an admirable companion piece to Abundance. I highly recommend it.

In an interview with Sam Harris two weeks ago, Mr. Diamandis responded thusly to the question, “What do you hope people will get from reading your book?”  He responds, “The first is hope.  You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable.”

Thank you, Peter Diamandis.

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