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.

What Do You Make of This?

My book, “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn Into a Nightmare” is an honest account, from my perspective, of my experience in founding one of the first day spas for men in the world called The Men’s PowerSpa.

When I had finished my book, in late 2008, I submitted it to one of the leading independent publishers in Canada, and the Managing Editor, who loved the book, and called it “the most original business book he had ever read”, said that it belonged on the syllabus of every M.B.A. program in the country.

That was a “light bulb” moment for me, as I had written the book as a cautionary tale for would-be entrepreneurs, to help them avoid the misfortune that I experienced. I had not thought of the book as an educational resource to be used in college or university entrepreneurship and business courses.

Based upon the comments of the Managing Editor, I decided to publish the book myself, and to send it to university and college instructors, to see if it might be of interest for their graduate and undergraduate courses. One of the most thrilling responses that I received was from the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, not only one of the top business schools in Canada, but my alma mater, as I have a Master’s degree in English from Western.

In short, the Ivey School of Business adapted my book, which is the tale of a first-time entrepreneur with the dream of creating one of the first spas in the world for men, into a case study. The case study was completed in the fall of 2009, and made available on the Ivey Publishing website.

I did not have any financial interest whatsoever in the use of the case study at Ivey or in the sale of the case study to other business schools, but I did see a benefit to me in the association with a prestigious academic institution like Ivey and in exposing my story to students of business around the world, some of whom might have interest in reading the complete story as I told it in my book.

I should also point out that in writing my book, I was as honest as I could possibly be about my actions, my decisions and my mistakes, and those of others involved in the story. I was guided at all times by the truth, and the advice that I had received from several lawyers, that as long as I told the truth, I could defend myself against any legal challenges that might arise. I also felt, and I am going to admit this openly, that as a citizen of Canada, I had the right to tell my story my way - and that is what I did. I refused to allow myself to be cowed out of doing so by anyone.

And, what happened to the case study that was created by the Ivey School of Business?

Shortly after it was published, they received an email from someone associated with the business who complained that the majority owners had not given their consent to use the case study.

The case study that was based upon my book.

The book that was an honest and truthful account of my experience.

The experience that belongs to me, which is part of my life story, and which I told as truthfully as I could.

And, what did Ivey Publishing do? They immediately withdrew the case study from their website, with the intent of revising it so as to completely disguise the name and the identity of the business.

In other words, to completely alter the story that I wrote.

And why would they do that?

I was told that their case studies are not based upon individual stories - like the story of an entrepreneur whose dream business turned into a nightmare. Their cases are based upon businesses, and unless everyone signs off on the case study like a happy little family, they won’t use it.

Wouldn’t want to risk controversy in the academic world now, would we?

Someday, there may be a case study that bears some vague resemblance to the story that I told in my book.

The story of how my dream business turned into a nightmare.

There are always going to be cowards who are afraid of the truth, and those who lack the courage to tell the truth.

And, hopefully, others who aren’t and don’t.

If you want to know my story, read my book.

Why is Good News so Hard to Believe?

Readers of this blog know that I usually use this space to write about my experience in launching and managing one of the first spas in the world for men, called The Men’s PowerSpa.

I have also written a book about that experience called “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn into a Nightmare”.

The incident which I am going to relate in this post occurred during the time that I was managing the business, but it does not necessarily have to do with small business. It has more to do with what I will refer to as human perversity.

While I was still running my spa for men, one of my clients - who was also a good friend - was introduced to a nutritional cleansing program created by a company in the United States called Isagenix.

Isagenix is reputed to be the world leader in nutritional cleansing, and their flagship program is a 30-day cleanse, which not only removes toxins from the system, but also achieves weight loss in most people who follow the program, because toxins in the body are encased in fat.

My friend followed the 30-day program very conscientiously, and he lost 24 pounds in 30 days. Not only that, he reported that he felt great - had more energy, was sleeping better and felt less stressed. I watched the transformation with my own eyes and I can certainly attest to the fact that he looked like a new man.

I was intrigued not only because of the dramatic improvement that I saw in my friend’s appearance, but because I had started a spa, and the 30-day detoxification program seemed to be a perfect fit for a business that had as its mission to help men look and feel their best.

Within a few months of being introduced to the Isagenix nutritional cleansing program, I had the falling out with my investors that I chronicled in my book “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn Into a Nightmare”, and was no longer running the spa, but I continued to be involved with Isagenix. To this day - almost three years later - I have an Isalean protein shake for breakfast every day, and I attribute the fact that I have been able to remain healthy despite the stress that I have experienced over the past few years to Isagenix. I have also recommended the 30-day program to several of my friends - guys who had said for years that they wanted to lose weight and improve their nutrition - and the results that they have achieved have been phenomenal.

I have also asked several personal trainers whom I have known for many years to evaluate the products. One of them is Sheldon Persad. I have known Sheldon for over 20 years. He is one of the most straightforward, no-nonsense people I have ever known, and totally dedicated to his personal training practice. I asked him to evaluate the products in the Isagenix nutrtional cleansing program over two years ago. He spent the first year trying to find flaws in it and looking for reasons not to recommend it to his clients. Now, he not only recommends it to his clients, he has put his mother on the program. That is how much he believes in it.

Last night, I went into the back office of my Isagenix website and reviewed some of the training videos from Isagenix University. In video after video, professionals from the world of medicine endorse and explain the benefits of the Isagenix products - one of them is the former nutritional consultant to the White House, while another is a colorectal surgeon. There are chiropractors, gynecologists, gastroenterologists - all expounding the health benefits of the 30-day nutritional cleansing program and the other Isagenix products.

Watching the videos last night reminded me of an incident which occurred while I was still running my spa for men. I was having coffee with another of my clients -another gent who had said for years that he really wanted to lose weight. He had at least 30 pounds of excess weight that had accumulated around his middle - which is a serious health concern for men. Women tend not to develop a “bowling ball” of excess weight in their belly in the way that men do.

When I mentioned the Isagenix program to him, and the phenomenal results that I had seen in several of my friends, he was immediately skeptical - and rattled off a number of people that he would have to consult before embarking on the program - his massage therapist, chiropractor, physiotherapist - etc.

While we were chatting, he was consuming one of those frothy coffee concoctions which has been shown to contain more fat and calories than a cheeseburger and fries. As far as I know, he had not consulted with any of his medical team before pouring that into his body - but he wanted to make sure that the Isagenix products that had been endorsed by the former nutritional consultant to the White House were safe.

This incident tells you why it can be so hard to sell people anything that is good for them - whether it is a nutritional cleansing program or a spa service. We always believe bad news - does anyone doubt that the frothy coffee drink is really full of fat, sugar and caffeine and that it has absolutely no nutritional value? Everyone knows that, and yet people line up to buy it all day long.

But try telling people about a product that is actually good for them - that can help them eliminate toxins, lose excess weight, gain energy and reduce stress. Must be a con, they say.

We believe bad news and doubt the good news. Perhaps that’s why obesity has reached epidemic levels in our society, along with other lifestyle-related illnesses.

Call it human perversity.

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?