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 http://www.mybusinessnightmare.com/. 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.

Winning the Battle to Tell the Truth

In my last post, I described the battle in which I am engaged to see to it that the case study which was created by the Ivey School of Business - one of the top business schools in Canada - based upon my book “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn Into a Nightmare” remains available to students at Ivey and at other business schools around the world which may have interest in using it in their programs.

In the spring of 2009, I submitted a copy of my book to the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, with a view to having it added to the curriculum of their courses in entrepreneurship. In May, I received an email from the Executive Entrepeneur in Residence at Ivey, expressing interest in adapting my book - or my story as I told it in my book - into a case study, as Ivey is one of a number of business schools that uses the “case study” methodology. The case study was written in the fall and posted on the Ivey Publishing website in November of 2009. In December, I received an email from Ivey informing me that my former friend and associate, who is now the president of The Men’s PowerSpa, had lodged a complaint, on the basis that the majority owners of the company did not give their consent to use the case study that bears the name of the company.

My book is a very personal account of one man’s entrepreneurial dream that turned into a nightmare. I wrote it as a cautionary tale to warn other would-be entrepreneurs of the dangers of starting a business - especially a “dream business” - with someone else’s money. Someone who may not share your passion or vision.

I did not expect the majority shareholders of the company that I founded to like my book because it is not a very flattering portrait of the way that people can behave when money is on the table. The lesson of my book is that when money is involved, a number of values which we cherish, such as fairness and even “niceness” can go out the window. You might think that all is fair in business, but I don’t, and that is why I wrote my book.

Prior to self-publishing my book, I consulted with several lawyers, and was advised that as long as my book was truthful, I could defend myself against any claims of libel. Since my book was truthful, I went ahead and published it. And the Ivey School of Business deemed that the story that I told in my book - the story of how my “dream business” turned into a nightmare - was of value to the students at Ivey and at other business schools around the world.

But in December, because the majority owners of the business had not approved of the use of the case study, they pulled it.

This, to me, is analagous to a newspaper pulling a story about the problems at Toyota becasue the owners of Toyota don’t like it. Talk about freedom of the press.

The upshot of all of this is that, as of this week, I was informed that the case study will go forward, in a disguised version, so that readers will not be able to recognize The Men’s PowerSpa.

So, somewhere in the future, students of entrepeneurship at Ivey and other business schools around the world may get to read the story of an entrepreneur who had a dream, and saw that dream turn into a nightmare.

It won’t be my story the way I told it in my book. But it will be as close as it can be, thanks to the majority owners of The Men’s PowerSpa.

A couple of guys who should be ashamed of themselves.

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.

How the Dumbest Comment I Ever Heard Became the Smartest

In the summer of 1982, I was producing a documentary on missing children, one of the first network programs produced on this subject. We were examining three types of missing children cases; stranger abductions, in which a child is taken by someone that the child and child’s family doesn’t know, parental abductions, in which a child is abducted by one of the parents, most often in a custody battle, and runaways.

The parental abduction case which we were following involved a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted, allegedly, by her father - at least, she had not been returned to her mother after a weekend visit with the father. The child and her father had been missing for almost a year.

One day a call came into the television station where I was producing the documentary, stating that the detective who was handling the parental abduction case was avilable for an interview. I was out with the director on another shoot, so the host of the show grabbed a cameraman from the newsroom and went out and did the interview. When she got back, she left the interview tape on my desk to view with the director of the show when we got back from our shoot.

When my colleague and I put the tape into the playback machine, the first thing we heard was the host asking the detective a very logical question: “Why is it so hard to find missing people?”

What she meant, and what we had all been wondering was, “How can a father and his teenage daughter avoid being caught for almost a year?” -that was what we all wanted to know.

But the detective said “Well, it’s always hard to find missing people, until you locate them, and then it’s easier to find them.”

The director and I heard this and began to roar. I cannot ever remember laughing harder. Yes, detective, it would be a lot easier to find missing people once you’ve located them, since they are then no longer missing.

I always considered the detective’s answer one of the dumbest comments I had ever heard in my life. (What he meant, of course, was that until you know where the missing person is located - i.e. in what city -you really have no idea where to begin searching.)

Until, I started a small business.

Until, I followed the advice of lawyers, accountants and business consultants and thought I did everything right.

Until things went very wrong, and all of the people who had told me that I was doing everything right started telling me how I had done everything wrong.

It’s always hard to know if a business is going to succeed until you try it - then, if it doesn’t work, it’s a lot easier to say that it isn’t going to work.

Just like the dumb detective said.

Guess he wasn’t so dumb after all.