The Bias Against Stories of Unsuccess

I received an email recently from a very good friend who had read my book, and is currently reading the 2007 work by Nassim Nicholas Taleb entitled “The Black Swan”.

My friend cited the following passage in Taleb’s book which he felt pertained to my book:

Numerous studies of millionaires aimed at figuring out the skills required for hotshotness follow the following methodology. They take a population of hotshots, those with big titles and big jobs, and study their attributes. They look at what those big guns have in common: courage, risk taking, optimism, and so on, and infer that these traits, most notably risk taking, help you to become successful. You would also probably get the same impression if you read CEO’s ghostwritten autobiographies or attended their presentations to fawning MBA students.

Now take a look at the cemetery. It is quite difficult to do so because people who fail do not seem to write memoirs, and if they did, those business publishers I know would not even consider giving them the courtesy of a returned phone call (as to returned e-mail, fuhgedit). Readers would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure, even if you convinced them that it had more tricks than a story of success. The entire notion of biography is grounded in the arbitrary ascription of a causal relation between specified traits and subsequent events. Now consider the cemetery. The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, etc. Just like the population of millionaires.

Rather interesting, wouldn’t you say?

I can certainly attest to the bias against stories of “unsuccess”, as I was advised by a number of people that no one would either publish or purchase a book with the negative-sounding title “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn Into a Nightmare”, not to mention a website called However, I must also add that my phone calls and emails to the three Canadian publishers to whom I submitted my book were returned, and, in fact, the Managing Editor of one of them said that my book was “one of the most original business books” he had ever read”. In fact, it was his comment that my book “belongs on the syllabus of every M.B.A. program in the country” that inspired me to self-publish and self-market the book.

I should also state that people have purchased the book, as well, although I have only just begun to figure out what it takes to publish and promote a book yourself. I haven’t done the latter - I am just beginning to figure out what I need to do.

What I find most interesting about the passage from Taleb’s book cited above is the inference that books about failure ( I prefer to use the term “unsuccess” to refer to my book as the business I founded has not failed) can be as instructive, if not more instructive, than books dealing with success. That is the very reason why I wrote my book, and subtitled it “A Cautionary Tale for Would-Be Entrepreneurs”, and also why I hope that everyone who is either considering starting a small business or studying entrepreneurship in school will read my book.

As for the contention in Taleb’s book that cemeteries are filled with unheralded “failures” who had just as much courage as famous “successes” - well, I’m not there yet, nor am I in any hurry to get there, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Bottom line: read my book and let me know if you agree with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s comments. And read his book “The Black Swan” too. Sounds interesting.

Can You Afford to Love Your Small Business?

In the summer of 2005, I was in love.

Yup, I’ll admit it.

Truly, madly, deeply.

I was in love with the small business that I had founded.

It was one of the first spas in the world for men, called The Men’s PowerSpa.

And why shouldn’t I have been in love with it - I had created it just the way I had imagined it.

It was slick, sleek and masculine, with a bit of swagger.

But it didn’t only look cool, it had taste - man, you weren’t going to hear any wind chimes and pan flutes in here - you were going to hear Sinatra, Darin, and Bennett - real guy music.

And it had a mission - a serious mission - to help men look and feel their best.

Because looking and feeling his best confers benefits in every aspect of a man’s life.

That was the core belief of my business.

I loved having created one of the first spas in the world for men, I loved being the self-proclaimed world leader in the men’s personal care industry and I loved it when guys came in and left - looking and feeling their best.

Because I loved my small business, I believed in it, and defended it against criticism, expecially if the source of the criticism was people who had never set foot in the spa.

Like my investors.

Love conquers all, they say. But they also say that love is blind.

Was I blind to some of the problems in my small business?

I really don’t know.

If you have a small business, can you afford to be in love with your business?

Can you afford not to?

Is Your Business Playing to Win Or Not To Lose?

In my post of yesterday, I wrote about the prevailing attitude that I had during the development phase of my small business - one of the first spas in the world for men - and throughout the two and half years that I was running the business.

The prevailing attitude was ‘This business can’t fail.”

The concept of my small business was to create a place where men could enjoy personal care services designed to help them look and feel their best in a comfortable, masculine environment.

How could a business like that fail?

And, by the way, the business hasn’t failed.

It was the relationship with my investors that failed.

Because I believed that my business could not fail, I made certain decisions - decisions that I would not have made if I felt that the business could or likely would fail.

In other words, I expected abundance, not scarcity.

I expected lots of clients, a steady stream of revenue, and success.

And because I expected success, I created a company that could succeed.

I founded my spa for men on three key watchwords: commitment, consistency and continuity.

I wanted a staff that was committed to the business, offering services of consistent quality, in order to create continuity with our clients.

To achieve that, I had to hire and retain good people. I could not afford to have a revolving door of service providers. If I did not retain my staff, I could not achieve the Three C’s that were the cornerstone of the business: commitment, consistency and continuity.

And that meant I had to pay my staff right from the beginning -before we had any clients. If I had only paid them a “fee per service”, with no services to deliver, they would have left within couple of days.

The belief that the business could not fail informed virtually every decision that I made.

Paying the staff an hourly wage was just one of them.

If you are thinking of starting your own small business, ot if you already have a small business, are you expecting abundance or scarcity? Are you playing to win or not to lose? Do you believe that your business cannot fail, or that it likely will?

Your belief system will determine how you develop and run your business.

If you have investors, as I did, you had better make sure that they share your belief system.

“Are we playing to win or playing not to lose?”

Make sure everyone has the same answer.

What drives you?

In the summer of 2004, when I was developing the business plan for my “dream business” - which was one of the first spas in the world for men - I was out for dinner with a friend and his wife. I told them about my plan for a business which would offer personal care services exclusively for men, designed to help them look and feel their best. My friend’s wife replied that she had just heard about a new idea for a fast food restaurant - offering cheese steaks. “Why wouldn’t you start a business like that?”, she asked. “Because I’m trying to help people”, I answered, “not kill them.”

Okay - this is not about the health benefits or lack thereof of a fast food repast consisting of steak and cheese - it is to say that if you have a personal mission - a passion, if you will - to help men look and feel their best, you are not likely to be start up fast food restaurant - or, at least I didn’t. I started a spa for men.

So, right from the start - the very beginning - I was driven by passion. And I continued to be - every single day. And I tried - every single day - to instill the passion that I had to help men look and feel their best into my staff - to ensure that a visit to my spa was the best part of every client’s day.

If you are not driven by passion in your business - what are you driven by? The money? If so, how long will you stick with it? How will you get through the tough times - because there will be tough tmes. If its just about the money - and there are lots of other businesses you could start to make money - how quickly will your business have to develop to keep you interested and motivated?

Passion was my motivation. If I had been motivated simply by money, I’d have needed to be in a business that developed a lot more quickly - but what business does that? Cheese steaks? Well, maybe.

I believe that many, if not most of the iconic businesses of the world are driven by a passionate belief in the value of the product or service being offered. Behind many of the most successful companies, there is a passionate, visionary entrepreneur - not someone simply looking for the fastest, safest buck.

If you have an idea for a business that you are really passionate about - your passion will likely be what sustains you.

Unless you make the mistake of bringing people into your business who don’t share your passion.