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Archive for February, 2013

There are two experiences in my life without which I personally could never have become an entrepreneur.  These two things are addiction and failure.  They are seminal to my entrepreneurial vocation and the bedrock of my current joy and fulfillment.

imagesCAJFIQ8LI spent many years as a committed addict of several sorts.  Without detailing the specifics of this, suffice it to say I was at times a liar, a thief, a drunk, a seducer, a narcissist, a scofflaw, and a devotee of magical thinking.  I was a wastrel using his innate gifts, education, and background to avoid reality, to not grow, to hide his authentic core and to avoid an engaged life.  I was a creature of ashen hollowness living in the shadows of a moral and mental abyss, a soulless Gollum caught in a vertiginous descent into life killing compulsion and escapism.

I was not unaware of my fallen state, but felt quite like St. Augustine who famously prayed, “Lord, take this sin (read lust, compulsion, addiction) from my heart—but not yet.”  I told myself I could give up my addictions any time as long as it was next Tuesday.  Nevertheless, at a nadir I had to stop or spiritually die.  I chose to come to a dead stop with the help of the usual suspects—Twelve Step programs, friends, family, faith, therapy.  But most importantly to me, I discovered, quite by accident, a new vehicle of salvation into which to pour a repairing soul.  For me that vehicle was entrepreneurship.

The formation of my executive sales outsourcing firm, Corporate Rain, was an attempt to simply create a company I could live healthily in.  Yes, I needed to make a profit, but my primary purpose was to become useful and whole and sustainable in rebuilding a personal center.  For me that meant staying honest with myself and others and forming a communal value system that constantly buttressed those qualities.

My addictions were close kin to my series of failures in life.  I started out to be a minister or teacher or professor.  Something ennobling and service oriented.  I actually was on the road to a Ph. D. in philosophy, but I dropped out to become an actor for ten years, where, despite appearances in a couple of Broadway shows and a national soap opera I basically crashed and burned, supporting myself mostly on unemployment and bar tending.  (Being an actor was also like catnip to my addictive nature.  It was like putting Miracle-Gro on my character defects.)  I tried to sing opera for two years and totally failed.  I tried to produce a Broadway show and lost a ton of money.

As I approached 40, I was broke and didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do.  Quite out of the blue, a CEO, who I knew socially, asked me to represent him around some high dollar discreet business matters.  It was essentially a customized, high-level sales job.  The very idea of of sales made my gorge rise.  What was sales?  Used car sales?  Glengarry Glen Ross?  A corporate Willy Loman?  I had no business training, no sales training, and no interest in being a corporate cog.  But the offer was from a friend, so I tried it.

Lo and behold, I was a tremendous high-level salesman.  And I loved it.  I saw a niche in executive sales outsourcing and formed a company around the idea.  It worked.  Out of the maelstrom of confusion, chaos, and bleakness in my life to that point, I became a successful entrepreneur.  Entrepreneurship offered me a unique life saver and a shot at personal redemption.

My gratitude for the institution of entrepreneurship is beyond words.

My entrepreneurial journey is not about money.  It is about meaning, integrity, recovery, and usefulness.  Entrepreneurship gave me a magical palimpsest reset to my life of addiction and failure.  It allowed me to banish demons and pour myself into a profit-making service vocation, fraught with meaning and value.  It was the ultimate therapy, offering the where-with-all for a life awash in grace and earned dignity.  A life after death, so to speak.

Thus, for anyone with a yen for meaning, I suggest entrepreneurship.  It is a gift quite separate from its value as a vehicle of capitalist striving.  If I went bankrupt tomorrow I would be a success as an entrepreneur because I have grown courageous, passionate, free, and whole through living in my company and serving its corporate community and clients.

So, as a recovering addict and as a multiple failure, my business life daily offers me a spiritual home and a locus for centered growth and earned satisfaction.  This is the goal and chief reward for my personal business journey.

Sherman-Alexie.-002[1]One of the many insights of AA include the suggestion of shifting out of your addiction through substitution.  My small business is The Good Addiction.

So addiction and failure can be the hand maidens of success, when mediated through the leavening antidote of entrepreneurship.  While the bad stuff doesn’t go away, it is transmorgrified into new and useful experience through productive enterprise.

I am convinced we are all addicts and failures to a lesser or greater degree.   Sherman Alexie, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, says, “There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain.  And we all look for ways to make that pain go away.”  Thanks, Sherman.

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Nat King Cole had a hit song in 1954 called”Smile” (Gottfried Engels/Ramon Zenker-Universal Music Publishing Group)  The first verse goes like this:

“Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

375x321_what_does_your_smile_say_about_you_featuresSentimental, perhaps, but The Harvard Business Review notes some substantive recent research that may substantiate the feeling of the song.  In its feature, The Daily Star, HBR recently printed an interesting small item summing up an article by Tara L. Kraft and Sarah D. Pressman of the University of Kansas titled,  “Grin and Bear It:  The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expressions on the Stress Response” in Psychological Science. (July 30, 2012)  Kraft states, “Age old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it,’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important non-verbal indicator of happiness, but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events.”

That may be overstating it a bit.  However, without going into the technical details of their study, Kraft and Pressman show that smiling during periods of tension and fear actually reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy.   Says Pressman, “The next time you are stuck in traffic or experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment.  Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ but it might actually help your heart health as well”

These researchers found the heart rates of people tested recovering from stress were 7 % lower, if they gripped a pair of chopsticks between their teeth in such a way as to force themselves to smile.

So how does this piece of obscure data speak to the entrepreneurial salesman?

Well, for me, just this.  I can report that, as the chief rainmaker for my firm Corporate Rain International, I face lots of rejection many if not most days.  That’s stressful.  However, even though most of my initial conversations with potential clients are by phone, I have often found that smiling and other affects of happiness and prosperity actually do keep my attitude and mien happy.  For example, if I’m having a less than salutary week, I will sometimes break my morose feelings simply by dressing in my best suit and brightest tie for a day, even if my day is only conference calls and desk work where no one can see me.  It sounds like stupid sales tricks, I know, and I hope it is not me simply succumbing to eccentricity in my dotage, but I’ve found such seemingly superficial changes can make for a better day.  The wise people of Alchoholics Annonymous have had this piece of intuitive knowledge for many years.  They call it “acting as if.”

Portrait of Thomas PaineSelling is innately stressful because it is full of rejection.  And any business owner is constantly selling, whether her activity involves the formal act of selling or not.  She embodies the trop of her company.  I personally look for little tricks to keep my personal projection prosperous and compelling.  “Smiling though my heart is breaking” may be a particularly useful one.

American patriot, philosopher, and political pamphleteer Thomas Paine said,  “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.  ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles to the death.”  Thanks, Thomas.

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9cca04c3fa40e38e9597fac4611272ceYou should know about Carissa Reiniger.  She is a kick-ass entrepreneur, but, more interestingly she is a generous soul and is a source of servant wisdom and ennobling inspiration.  She just launched a “Thank You, Small Business” tour in support of her new book by the same name (with Roger Arnold), as well as a helpful new small business foundation.  Catch her if her tour comes to your town.  (NYC, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Portland Philadelphia, Denver, Tucson, Las Vegas, and Oakland)

Carissa’s general purpose is to increase the awareness of how important small business is to the economy.  She hopes to create an ongoing resource offering free support and business advice on any number of topics to members of our community.

Here are a few facts.  Small companies make up the vast majority of productive enterprise in the U.S.  They are 99%of the employers, 50% of non-farm GDP, and over half of private sector employment.  They account for 97% of exports and 70% of new private sector jobs.  Essentially the small capitalist enterprise community is the foundation on which the economy sits.  Yet, small businesses were not bailed out in the late financial crisis like the big banks and automobile manufacturers, and precious little concrete help has been forthcoming for us from the government. Quite the opposite.  Furthermore, It is projected that 70% of all small businesses will not be around in five years.  We all know the government regulation that has been piled on us and the political rhetoric that has at times been quite diminishing of small business.  (You didn’t build that!)  Ms. Reiniger believes this trend must not only stop, but be reversed—and quickly–if the country is to maintain economic vitality.

She states, “The economy needs small businesses to grow.  They are not growing.  We have got to figure out collectively how to make that happen.”  She is a missionary with a crusader’s zeal for entrepreneurship and she is passionately convinced that solutions to global problems must and will come out of small business.  But small business needs help.

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Accordingly she has established the entirely not-for-profit Thank You, Small Business, which she is self-funding with the help of some large corporate sponsors like American Airlines, Citrix, Nespresso, and others.  The total revenue of her new book also is dedicated to her non-profit.

So kudos to you, Carissa Reiniger.  Thank you for your whirlwind energy and spiritual generosity in creating a new resource to aid public understanding of the crucial value created for everyone by small business, as well as offering efficacious tools to all entrepreneurs to promote the general health and growth of innovative enterprise.

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frontiersman-ranger-scout-portrait-randy-steeleAmerica is historically a frontier society.  “Go west, young man,” Horace Greeley famously intoned.

What do you do if your country has the imagination of a frontier nation but has no physical frontier to conquer?  There is only one obvious outlet that comes quickly to my mind:  Entrepreneurship.  That is today’s new frontier.  It is a wondrously good fit for the courageous risk-taker who no longer has an unexplored American West or a mysterious deepest, darkest Africa or the longing to reach the moon, to challenge her.

There are several reasons the mythos of the entrepreneur has so captured the popular imagination.  It is certainly the allure of the cultural frontier ethos (self-made man hews out a place for himself in the raw wilderness.)  But I believe it is much more than that at the deeper level of our consciousness.  It is rather a visceral longing to create meaning itself.

We live in an anomic world that has little of the cohesive, society-knitting homogeneity of the past.  Ours is a restless, unmoored society that has no real outlet for the Randian hero, the existential voyager.  It is a world comfortable with irony, but bereft of spiritual essence—a world where the best and brightest increasingly compete for positions as bureaucrats and oligarchs.

In such a world, entrepreneurship engages the soul of those who long to find a human center and, I would argue, even a theological center, to anchor their raison d’etre.  For example, there is almost an apotheosis that has occurred around Steve Jobs and other entrepreneurial heros—a sort of low-level semi-deification of the innovative business striver.

We’re in a brave new world that longs for Truth, even if we are inarticulate and unclear in that longing.  Entrepreneurship is the real-life modern gamification of the hero’s search for the Holy Grail.  A new business is a self-created church for some.  It is a grotto of escape from the meaninglessness of the quotidien, a defiance of the amorphous new normal. Society has come to a place very similar to where William Butler Yeats was when he spoke into the political and economic vacuum between World Wars I and II:

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”  (The Second Coming-1919)

Entrepreneurs hope that they can at least create a personal fulcrum where the center can hold.  They hope to create their own sea of tranquility, clarity and personal satisfaction–inured to societal dysfunction.

Yet there are evil portents out there concerning this dream (the entrepreneurial idyl.)  Note the recent survey by the Traveler’s Institute that reveals entrepreneurs are reluctant to start new businesses because they can’t rightly judge the costs of massive new regulation, tax increases, The Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and unfriendly governmental rhetoric.  (You didn’t build that!)  Carl Schramm, formerly of the Kaufman Foundation, reports a troubling economic trend:  a decline in the formation of new businesses.  Schramm notes that approximately 700,000 firms came into existence each year in the 2000s, but only 500,000 so far this decade.  (December 16, 2012, 4 Percent)

carl_schramm_5x7The importance of entrepreneurs to the health of the economy is not disputed.  The educational community’s response to this is basically, “No problem.  We will simply train up lots of new entrepreneurs by teaching a specialized skill competency around our traditional business school curriculum.”  But, as Schramm says, “…such entrepreneurship programs may be something like sleeve buttons on a man’s suit—they are there but serve no real purpose.”

Entrepreneurship is a most elusive concept.  I personally believe entrepreneurs simply are either hard-wired for passion, individualism, and an unshakable thirst for freedom, or evolve into those things as part of a fully lived life.  I always find it remarkable that there is a proliferating business in teaching up hundreds of thousands of insta-presto parvenu entrepreneurs.  It’s a bunch of snake oil hooey to my mind.  (There are  over 6,000 professors of entrepreneurship today who are putting out putative entrepreneurs, while every year new company formation steadily declines.)  It is a case of academia’s taking advantage of the deep longing for autonomy and personal meaning among students, who don’t realize that entrepreneurship is not an academic skill-set, but a spiritual frontier for the intrepid.

So beginning a new capitalist enterprise is as close as we are offered to pioneering on the old frontier.  As an old Eagles song once noted, “There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it.”

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