Posts Tagged 'entrepreneur'

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Tribute

I once read a critique of Atlas Shrugged that slammed Ayn Rand’s masterpiece for its unpolished prose.  That’s like reading Emily Dickinson and wondering when the explosions will manifest.  If you read Atlas Shrugged in search of flowery phrases, well you’re reading the wrong book there kemosabi.  The book’s appeal is in the heroic treatment it gives the builders and entrepreneurs of an otherwise corroding civilization.  

That’s right.  Atlas Shrugged is a critically acclaimed work of fiction that celebrates business people.  Shocking, right?  I mean, everyone knows that business types are evil, don’t they? It’s so obvious.

Just look at movies like Erin Brokavich, The Verdict, Michael Clayton, The RainmakerWall Street or the vast majority of pop culture that features business people.  Even Lost, one of the most innovative television shows ever made, features an evil industrialist.  Whoa, the industrialist is the bad guy?  No way! Didn’t see that one coming, guys!

Maybe I’m missing an obvious reference, but prior to Atlas Shrugged, I think we’d have to go all the way back to a book like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to see a similarly heroic take on the entrepreneur.

As a quick reminder, Les Mis begins as Jean Valjean, a former convict, steals silverware from a kind bishop.   After the bishop discovers the crime, he graciously allows Jean Valjean to escape another prison term.  In exchange, the bishop asks Jean Valjean to promise that he will live an honest life from this point onward.

The narrative skips ahead a few years, revealing that Jean Valjean has indeed kept his promise.  He has become respectable and made his town wealthy thanks to a new manufacturing process he invented for his factory.

Back in Victor Hugo’s time, folks actually appreciated those who brought jobs and wealth to their towns. That’s probably why Hugo uses Jean Valjean’s business accomplishments to suggest that he’s become a model citizen.  In contrast, today we gather up our collective pitchforks  to hunt business people as if they were freakish monsters worthy of death or at least heavy regulation.  With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the U.S. has the second-highest tax rate in the world?

That anti-business animosity is present even in Atlas Shrugged, and Hank Rearden, one of the heroic entrepreneurs in the novel, struggles to overcome it.  He’s a businessman who has figured out a way to make a metal that is stronger than steel, and he puts all of his energies into building a great company that manufactures his new material.  His competitors cannot deliver anything of comparable quality, so instead they pay off government bureaucrats and give lots of speeches.

Since we’re on the subject, I do admire great orators as much as the next guy, but I’m more impressed when speakers prove themselves to be people of action.

Speech-minded reader, you could do worse than following Teddy Roosevelt’s example.  He too gave speeches, but his speeches were not the sum total of his efforts. They were merely the structural supports.  It’s why he could boldly admonish his listeners to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Anyway, many people in Rearden’s society have come to feel entitled to the profits of his business, even though they have done nothing to help it grow.  Ayn Rand calls them the looters, a ravenous mob not unlike a zombie horde.   Seeing an opportunity to expand power, the government satiates the looters by raising taxes and placing more onerous restraints on Rearden and industrialists like him.

Rearden’s competitors use their government contacts to negotiate loopholes for themselves.  That’s Ayn Rand’s way of acknowledging that businesses are not immune to corruption, but that big government tends to enable rather than curtail it.

Cruelty in Perfection – William Hogarth, 1751

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As the novel progresses the government bureaucracy becomes more intrusive and many entrepreneurs decide that it is no longer beneficial to stay in business.  Rearden tries to stay afloat, but as the government takes over more industries it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so.

From the beginning, the novel’s speechmongers had clamored for more government control, but contrary to their utopian claims, society does not improve.  Since no one has an incentive to work hard, the workers opt to do the bare minimum or to drop out of the system altogether.   Gone is the potential to profit from manufacturing parts or excellent service, so machinery deteriorates and accidents increase.  

As the general population becomes more apathetic, the government realizes that it must use force upon its own people to compel them to work.  The doom of civilization lingers, but a few resourceful entrepreneurs like Rearden mount the resistance.

Atlas Shrugged was published back in 1957, but it feels so contemporary: In our world, entire nations and politically connected corporations ask others to finance their profligacy insisting that they’re too big to fail.  Our American government comes down hard on businesses, except those who have contributed heavily to certain political campaigns.  For example, one of Obama’s biggest campaign contributors was Goldman Sachs, a company that did quite well in the subprime-mortgage dustup.

Let’s not forget that the S&P recently downgraded the U.S. credit rating.  That didn’t even happen in the Great Depression ladies and gentlemen, and the very politicians who spend our money at unprecedented rates look us in the eyes and tell us that the government is not the problem.

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat – William Hogarth, 1746

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The problem, as they see it, stems from the people who protest the government’s encroaching appetite.  Indeed Ayn Rand has become a prophet of our times.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  My goal in writing is not to suggest that businesses can do no wrong.  On the contrary, businesses are run by people, and people come in all sorts of varieties, some good some bad.  If we agree that proper governance helps sustain society, then it follows that some limited government oversight in business can also be useful.

Not every Ayn Rand enthusiast would agree with those presuppositions, so allow me to defend them by quoting from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, an influential pamphlet during the American Revolution.

Paine writes,”For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”  In other words, if we were all perfect we wouldn’t need government; We would naturally live in harmony with each other.

Since that is not the case, we need a system of laws to preserve the social fabric that allows for civilization.  Businesses too need some regulation to ensure fair play, to prevent unethical business types from doing anything to make a quick buck.

Besides, without even the most limited amount of regulation, porn shops and drug dealers would be everywhere.  Do you really want to live in that kind of society? I don’t.

With that said, we need to get rid of this harmful notion that every societal problem is due to the nefarious machinations of conniving, greedy businessmen.  By and large, successful businesses make things better, not just for the stockholders and their employees but also for their customers and their communities at large. 

If they didn’t, why would people continue to work and buy from them?  Remember, businesses don’t have standing armies to coerce participation. Governments do.

Then there’s the whole notion of being able to advance based on merit.  We take that for granted, but it wasn’t always a given.

Imagine what it would be like if your status was almost entirely dependent upon the family to whom you were born or to which you joined in marriage.

Not so keen on the medieval way?  You could always live la vida loca like the Soviets did, by bribing government officials just to increase your odds of survival.     I’d say the oft-maligned businessman is starting to look downright friendly in comparison.

You wouldn’t know it from popular culture, but a lot of folks actually have strong affectionate feelings toward businesses.  I’m one of them.

Working for Canon has expanded my technical abilities, increased my confidence, and brought more stability to my life.  No charitable outreach has done the same for me.

Plus, Canon equipment is among the best in the market.  All my recent freelance projects have been shot with Canon gear, and I wouldn’t go that route if I didn’t have the highest respect for Canon engineering.

Don’t just take my word for it though.  Visit Canon USA’s Facebook page, and you’ll notice that the vast majority of comments are positive, effusive ones.  But why stop at Canon?  You’ll find similar things if you check out the feedback for companies like Apple, amazon.com, IKEA, Chick-fil-A, Volkswagen, Target, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Zappos, Walt Disney, and the list could go on and on.

These are all businesses that have made life better for millions of people,  and you don’t make life better for millions of people by merely focusing on profit.  That is a foolish anti-business fallacy.  You get there, first and foremost, by being useful, even delightful, to others in an excellent way.

In Atlas Shrugged, it is the bureaucrats who compromise and sell out to advance themselves.  Rearden, in contrast,  sacrifices prestige and short-term wealth so that he might produce something truly exceptional.  To aim for anything less even when the entire world encourages you to do so is not to be fully alive, Ayn Rand suggests.

Like Hank Rearden, the entrepreneurs who produce excellent, profitable businesses are heroes of our modern world, but when was the last time a movie, a music album, or a novel conveyed as much?  Atlas Shrugged is one example, but we need more.

In the book Microtrends, author and researcher Mark Penn tells of a recent survey he ran where an alarming number of kids expressed interest in becoming snipers when they grow up.  He speculates that data spike is due to the attention snipers get in news coverage, movies, and video games.

Now you tell me, would you rather have a society full of aspiring snipers or entrepreneurs? Do you want your next creative project to inspire the next Columbine shooter or the next Steve Jobs?

The Delivery of the Keys – Pietro Perugino 1481–1482

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If you chose the latter options, then maybe it is time for you do something about it.  Reading Atlas Shrugged is a good place to start (you can listen to it as an audiobook if you prefer), but if you don’t have time for that, would you at least stop suggesting that every business person is evil?  Can you stop relying on the government to solve all your problems?

While you’re at it, don’t be content just to consume. Produce. Give back.  Building a great and virtuous business is as good of a way as any to do that.

 

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As always, thanks for reading and God bless.
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The American Beauty of Small Giants

I believe in the American dream, the one that tells us that we can become anything we want to be with enough hard work and character. Dreams don’t always come true, but in America there is no king who orders our lives, no class structure that limits how far we can advance in society. Truly, our place in the world is not confined by our blood-relations but by how useful we become to our fellow citizens.

Entrepreneurs embody that American dream.  They take on enormous risk and devote time and money to offer goods or services that will, it is hoped, be valuable enough to sustain a business.  In the process they provide jobs, revenue, and training to the community where they operate.

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As long as we Americans remain free, we will continue to seek out all kinds of ways to better ourselves by improving the lives of others. Tragically, though, when profit at any cost becomes the only guiding principle of a business, it corrupts the very ideals that made the business possible.

For every irresponsible company like Enron, WorldCom, Massey, or BP  the pressure to regulate business grows, and if there is anything that a bureaucrat enjoys it’s fattening up the law books with more regulations.

Never forget, noble reader, that in some societies, sprawling government bureaucracies entirely dictate the ways their citizens live their lives.  Watch The Lives of Others if you want to see what that looks like.
Fortunately there’s a solution.  It involves just 15 minutes a day doing some simple, relaxing exercises.  Actually, those are the instructions for the AbMaster 3000, if I remember correctly. Sorry about that.

You know, you read one article about how great abs are an essential element of a vigorous foreign policy, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get your solutions mixed up.  I mean that hypothetically, of course.  I’m not the sort person who reads those articles or uses AbMasters, at least not on a daily basis.

Anyway, more regulations won’t prevent corrupt businesses from harming others.  It’s the good guys, not the bad ones, who follow the rules, after all.
What we do need is a reminder that it’s possible to succeed at work and still do right by your community.   That’s why I’m asking you to read Small Giants, written by Inc editor Bo Burlingham.

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As far as I’m concerned, it’s the definitive text on how to be both a good business person and a caring citizen.   You see, the book celebrates businesses who refuse to sacrifice excellence and character in the name of growth and profits.

Whether you are involved in small or big business, whether you work for yourself or do volunteer work, I promise you’ll find something to appreciate in the book.  If you don’t, then please let me know, and I will pay for your copy of the book.  I’m serious about that.

In the book Mr. Burlingham profiles a few companies that have what he calls “mojo,” something special about the way they do things that has to be experienced to be understood.

What is it that gives a company mojo?  As Geoffrey Rush’s characters likes to say in Shakespeare in Love, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”  It’s one of those things that is hard to define in concrete terms, but Mr. B does give us some clues.
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Photo credit: flickr.com/h-k-d
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For one thing, the people at the business really believe in what they’re doing. It’s not just that phony reiterate-the-mission-statement-and-tap-dance-for-the-boss kind of thing.  It’s real.

It costs something to live up to ideals, and if the company ideals are there just to sound impressive then no one will sacrifice for them.  When the business leaders are making the sacrifices for the things they value though, that’s when others start paying attention.  It’s contagious if you do it enough.

One of the companies Mr. Burlingham profiles is Ani DeFranco’s music label: Righteous Babe.  He tells of how they put together a folksy newsletter, meant to read like a personal conversation with Ani DeFranco herself.  It’s free, but the label wants it to be so good that others would willingly pay for it.

That’s a lot of effort to pour into something that could be dismissed as just another platform for selling records, but the Righteous Babe people want to let the fans know that Ani is a different kind of musician.

Apparently word gets around.  Mr. B reports that people travel from across the country to visit the studio and experience the difference.

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Photo from babevillebuffalo.com, home of Righteous Babe Records

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Another profiled company is Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The owners turned down the opportunity to go national; they felt that would adversely affect the dining experience they could offer.  Instead, they expanded into new business ventures that allowed them to offer more to the neighborhoods they serve.
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A different example of that is Hammerhead Productions.  They’re an effects company founded by four guys who were at the peak of their careers.  The guys wanted to be able to work in a friendly environment and pick their own projects, so they formed Hammerhead.

Now they have the leverage to turn away projects that don’t feel right.  Sure, they want to make money, but not at the cost of doing work they don’t respect or under circumstances they won’t enjoy.

On the other hand, you have some celebrities who will endorse anything for the right price, even if they don’t use the product they endorse.  As if those types really need more money. It’s not always about an endorsement. Sometimes it’s about the compromises they’ll make in the hope of winning acclaim.

Being surrounded by flashy beguilers, we’re conditioned to accept selling out as a notable way of life.  (To be fair there are some decent-minded celebrities who bank on excellence.  It’s just that bad apples are good at spoiling the barrel’s reputation, don’t you know.)

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Photo credit: flickr.com/jef_safi
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I get discouraged when companies and people I once admired compromise on quality or virtue in the name of more money, more power, more whatever. Don’t you? It adds some resistance to doing things the right way, and who really needs that?

I understand people make mistakes, and there’s always pressure to get results.  I am far from a perfect person, so I’m not here to point fingers. I’m just asking you to stand for more than just supersizing yourself. (You know, you could do worse than looking to a God for that…)

Zingerman’s Delicatessen takes pride in the quality of their sandwiches. They don’t ration out the meat in hopes of saving money.  They want to make a masterpiece that astonishes you.  As a result people line up outside the store and endure long waits to experience the magic.

One company like that is enough to counterbalance 10 soulless ones.  It stands as a beacon of hope, reminding us of what community-oriented greatness can be.
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By now you may have noticed that I’ve used the word “community” a few times.  That’s not an accident.  It is a concept that keeps resurfacing in the book.

When work is just about the bottom line, the bosses treat their employees like profit-making machines, the employees loath coming to work, and the customers must endure meaningless headquarters-approved soundbites uttered by the unhappy employees.  How awful for everyone involved.  But, when you actually care about why you’re there, then you’ll be more likely to care about who is there.
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Photo credit: flickr.com/seeminglee
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The Righteous Babe folks care about their Buffalo, NY community.  They do everything possible to buy supplies from local vendors and hire people who live nearby.  Sometimes that means having to pay more, but in doing so they can give back to the locals who support them.

Ober Tanner of O. C. Tanner Manufacturing, another profiled company in the book, is quoted as saying “I feel responsible for everyone here.” He is the kind of employer who says he wants his employees to receive happiness from their work and means it.  The enthusiastic employees who treat him like a hero are the proof.

The Clif Bar company shows commitment to their community by paying their employees to do a few hours of volunteer work.  The most intriguing part is that they let their employees pick the charities they’ll each get paid to help. Instead of streamlining the process, the Clif Bar executives want to give employees the freedom to support the causes they value.

As Mr. Burlingham explains, that sort of thing happens because Small Giants are companies whose first priority is serving the people inside of the company. The customers come second.

The idea is that you treat your people so well that they will fight for the things that matter to you.  They’re not just coming in to get a paycheck. They’re doing their best for their family at work.  It makes a difference.
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Since we’re talking about Clif Bar,  now would be a good time to mention their site: clifbar.com.  It’s unique and conveys personality, and it’s another reminder that the company stands for something. That’s what good design can do.

Thanks to the Small Giants book, I’ve come to value the Clif Bar brand so much that I plan to buy their energy bars even if they cost more than the competition.  Price isn’t everything.

There’s no way I could do justice to all the book’s ideas here.  If you want to learn more, give the book a chance.  It’s an easy read, even if you’re not normally into business books.

As a bonus, the witer practices what he preaches:  Although it would probably be cheaper to print in China, the book is still printed in the USA. That’s not a fact Mr. Burlingham mentioned.  I know it only because I checked.

“It’s not what we do. It’s who we are.” That’s the slogan for the Small Giants Community, a forum for entrepreneurs who want to live out the ideas in Mr. Burlingham’s book. Put differently, you don’t have to be part of a small business to be a Small Giant.   You can work for a big business or you can go it alone.

It is mostly a matter of taking pride not in what you get from the world, but in the special things that only you can give. Do that while benefiting everyone involved and sustaining the endeavor, and you’ll really have something!

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If you think that sounds a little idealistic, you’re right.  But then, our country was founded on ideals, and there is something inherently American about being a Small Giant. When you’re blessed to live in a free society, you can take risks, dream, and dare to do things your own way, assuming that you follow the laws of the land. (Let us pray the laws do not devolve further into crippling monstrosities.)

Don’t listen to the politicians.  America does not need more government control.  We need more hardworking, character-driven Small Giants who are excited about sharing something special and profitable with their communities.

Let’s end with a quote from the author,   “Having a great business is one way of making a better world.”  Cheers to that.