Businesspeople Deserve Every Penny: A Businessman Reacts

Yesterday self-described “mid-level manager” Ben White sent me this reaction to “Businesspeople Deserve Every Penny.”  Reprinted with his permission.


Bryan,

I read your post about the 12 Labors you’ve been subjected to shortly after I wrapped up a call with the VP in Supply Chain at the company where I work.  We spent most of the call basically reflecting on the idea that everything is a mess in the world right now and this mess is replicating across multiple industries at the same time and there isn’t an easy solution. Supply chains are interwoven and when problems occur they can feel linear at the time but each break in the chain creates multiple more outcomes so you have to get comfortable with small problems having exponential impacts.

As a mid-level manager I thought your below questions were funny if you were asking them of me.  However – if the “they” you’re referring to is an executive leader, I think you’re mostly headed in the right direction of understanding them.

Are they stoic?  Do they realize that hardly anyone will sympathize with their plight?  Or are they just too busy making the trains run on time to stop and reflect?  

Added a few thoughts below – mostly from my mid-level perspective – along with any insights I’ve been afforded from the bosses.

Stoics: Maybe some business people are – it depends what sort of crucible they’ve been subjected to.  In The Case Against Education you discuss how employers are looking for conformity in employees; these eventually become the mid-level managers (and some become executives).  I see the folks who’ve always taken the high status jobs (strategy/marketing) really crack when stuff hits the fan.  These are the students who seem to check every box and pursue jobs which look good on a resume.

The leaders who’ve spent more time in the unattractive roles (operations management for example) are much more comfortable with things breaking – and living with a “control what you can control” mindset.  Some of these leaders haven’t been to college.

Too busy to reflect:  I have yet to find a good leader who doesn’t advocate spending time to reflect on your actions and outcomes.  Leading people is a constant process of reflecting on your own actions to make sure you understand how to get more out of your team.  It also requires you to have your team reflect on their actions and then report back to you on how well they’re doing at executing the tasks you’ve assigned them – where they’re succeeding, where they need help, etc…It’s pretty simple “line manager” stuff – but the little stuff can be hard to do.

Sympathy: Finding someone to sympathize with likely goes against a few factors leaders face.  If you’re the CEO you don’t get to cry down and you don’t have peers – it is truly lonely at the top.  If you’re mid-level then you’re in a pretty significant political battle – at least internally.  Careering is a competitive sport – if you’re looking for sympathy it’s easy to be seen as someone who can’t hack it.  If you’re commiserating over beers with a peer you have to be careful that they don’t sabotage you later.  You can talk to friends in other companies – but do they want to listen to you whine – probably not.  So it’s easier to just move on.  I guess you could post it on LinkedIn – but not sure what a signalling theory would say about a business person going onto LinkedIn to say work is hard.  Like this doesn’t really seem like something you’d want to signal to future employers (or employees).

Anyway – great stuff – the Labors made me laugh today.  Was good to hit the pause button for a bit and step away from work-work.

 

Thanks,

Ben

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Free Markets and Tolerance: Make More Stuff I Don’t Like, Please!

The other day I told my Facebook friends that my current favorite thing is when the Spring collections from fashion designers come out and they’re full of edgy, wild, often gender bending designs (especially this year in the men’s collections–because Billy Porter) and dads everywhere repost the runway images and declare with outrage that they won’t be buying any of THIS nonsense.

Do they really mean to suggest that if the clothing had been more traditionally styled they’d have laid out $800 for a t-shirt?

Sometimes, you–whoever you are–just aren’t the target audience for a product. I’m Jewish, so I’m not buying any Christian rock anytime soon, but you don’t see me getting all outraged over that trinitarian stuff they keep trying to foist on me. It’s not FOR me. If I liked it, the Christian rockers would be doing their job wrong.

If my crew of Facebook dads liked the current collections from cutting edge fashion houses, those fashion houses would be doing their jobs wrong.

I don’t like olives. I also don’t like horror movies. I don’t like death metal, or rice pudding, or perfumes that smell like food. I don’t like self help books, white wine, spray air fresheners, acrylic yarn, spider plants, flip flops, or golf.

I’m not an exceptionally disagreeable person–at least I don’t think I am. But I’m a person, and that means there are things that I don’t like. I have, in other words, what economists would call preferences.

Free markets mean I can satisfy my preferences for things that I do like–dark chocolate, movies about superheroes, lyrics-driven angsty guitar folk/roots/punk music, clotted cream, perfumes that smell like incense, books about magic and alternate universes, Cabernet, herbal wreaths, cashmere yarn, rose bushes, block heeled boots, and taekwondo. 

The market doesn’t deliver everything I want to me, of course. Sometimes this is because the technologies to make the things I want don’t exist yet. (Apparently this includes a chocolate yogurt that actually tastes like both chocolate and yogurt). Sometimes it’s because I’m weird enough that not enough people want the things that I want (Cars with all the bells and whistles BUT that still have windows that roll down manually). Sometimes it’s because I want stuff I can’t afford (diamond necklaces, houses by the ocean, a Shakespeare First Folio). But most of the stuff I want is out there, and if I choose to spend some of my money on it, I can get it. That’s how functional markets work.

And people who make stuff to satisfy my effective demands (that means my demands for things I can afford) are getting better and better at knowing what we want and providing it. Targeted advertising sometimes feels a little creepy, but it’s also how I found out there’s a Canadian bookshop that curates boxes of books and goodies for kids exactly the ages that mine are. It’s how I found my favorite pair of shoes. And it’s how I discovered the wonders of Japanese office supplies. 

But sellers’ increased ability to cater to my weirdo wants and desires isn’t limited to me. (As my parents always told me, the world isn’t here to make me happy.) This increased ability to fulfill wants and desires serves all of us. It means my husband can find t-shirts with jokes about his favorite band’s lead singer’s dogs. It means my older daughter can find enamel pins for a web series I’ve never heard of, and my younger daughter can find socks decorated with the faces of her favorite K-pop idols.

It means that people who like olives and horror movies and death metal and all the other stuff I don’t like can find those things too.

A free market is going to make a lot of stuff I don’t like, don’t want, and don’t need.

If the market offers something illegal, I can bring legal action. If it offers something I think is immoral, I can protest or boycott. That’s cool. I don’t have to buy everything the market offers. If I don’t like olives, no one’s going to make me buy them. But I can rest perfectly content knowing that people who do like the revolting salty ovoids can buy them. In exchange for providing me with the stuff that I do want, the free market asks only that I tolerate the wants of others even if I don’t share them. In nearly every case my preference for a particular good or service is just that–a preference. It’s not a referendum on my character, or yours, if we disagree about olives, or white wine, or superheroes. 


That’s what makes it great. Even if it does mean that olives, somehow, persist.

If it presents me with things that are tacky, or irritating, or taste bad, I can complain to my friends on Facebook if I want, or I can just realize that not everything the market puts out is for everyone. 

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President Biden’s Pipeline Closure Did NOT Destroy Jobs

According to the Republican National Committee in a letter they sent to me: “On his very first day in office, Joe Biden destroyed 11,000 American jobs and $1.6 BILLION in wages when he halted construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.” This was coupled with a plea to “Please contribute $45 IMMEDIATELY to help your Party win back the House and Senate.” I reject both messages.

Ok, ok, if you want to say that this decision of President Biden’s destroyed jobs, fine. But, then, if you want to be logical, you also have to opine that:

* The horseless carriage destroyed jobs in saddle making, horse training, blacksmithing, whip manufacture, and cleaning up manure.

* The cell phone demolished employment opportunities at Kodak in film-making, camera production.

* The computer eviscerated occupations in typewriters, carbon-paper, white-outs (for typing errors), forestry (less paper now needed)

* Automatic elevators devastated careers for manually operated elevator attendants.

* Air conditioning put paid to the fan industry.

* 78 records gave way to 45s, which were supplanted by tapes and then discs the streaming; jobs were “lost” every step of the way.

* Air travel to a great degree supplanted alternative means of transportation (well, not right now, to be sure, but, hopefully, soon again).

* Changes in taste have eliminated numerous careers in manufacturing hula hoops, pet rocks, men’s hats and women’s too

This list could go on and on. The RNC should take it as a homework assignment to add to it.

Yes, it cannot be denied, in all of these cases job slots were eliminated, including in the present administration’s decision that construction be halted in pipeline construction. But to put matters in such a way is an exercise in economic illiteracy. A more accurate description is that occupations are/were/will be shifted from one avenue to another. Unemployment did not rise when the automobile, the cell phone, the computer, automatic elevators were introduced. Rather, people were transferred from working on items no longer needed to others in greater demand. Instead, they were allocated in the direction of new goods and services more greatly desired by consumers.

In all these examples it is clear from the position of the Monday morning quarterback that these were economic improvements. Whether reducing fossil fuels and oil, which are complementary goods to pipelines, and embracing alternative energy sources will be an improvement to our economic welfare is an entirely different matter. All that can be said about this decision is that it will not destroy jobs; it will rather rearrange the labor market in the direction favored by the new administration.

The natural tendency of the market system is in the direction of full employment. When industries collapse, due to progress, new technology, changes in taste, etc., this releases workers to seek alternative employment. Such phenomena do not “destroy jobs”; rather, they move them elsewhere.

True, Mr. Biden’s pipeline decision did not stem from changing consumer tastes, new technology, etc. But in our system, he is now the representative of the people, all the people, those who voted for him and those who did not. Was this a wise move on his part on our behalf? Save that question for another day. For now, we must see through the foolishness of declaring he has “destroyed jobs.”

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Businesspeople Earn Every Penny

Back in February, I got the idea to create a COVID vaccination t-shirt (now on sale!).  Reflecting on my past experience, I figured it would be easy.

Step 1: Run an illustration contest on Freelancer.com, something I’ve successfully done several times before.

Step 2: Take the winning entries to Zazzle.com, design some shirts, and sell them using the same interface, another thing I’ve done several times before (albeit on a small scale).

 

My thinking: The whole process would be pretty fun, so I’d only need to sell a few dozen shirts to cover the cost of the contest and count the project a success.  I’m still optimistic, but the process has definitely been much more aggravating than expected.  A chronological list of snags:

1. One of my winning entrants warned me that the other two winners had copied their designs.  Unpleasant news.

2. When I followed up, one of the accused was able to produce clear documentation that she had purchased the rights to her design.  One problem solved.

3. The other accused contestant, however, seemed quite evasive about the situation.  Or perhaps it was a language problem?  I didn’t like the idea of paying for an unusable design, but I also felt bad about refusing to reward one of my winners.  After much prodding, he finally produced clear documentation that the images he incorporated into his design were in the public domain.  Another problem solved, but the conflict weighed on me.

4. I was planning on immediately announcing that the three shirts were available for sale, but I decided I ought to order test copies for myself first.  And figuring I was losing sales every day, I paid for rush delivery from Zazzle.

5. A couple days later, Zazzle sent me an email canceling the order.  Why?  They claimed that the sole fully original design violated copyright!  Hopefully I’ll work this out eventually, but apparently every drawing of a guy in a white suit at a disco infringes Saturday Night Fever.  Argh.

6. I could have challenged the ruling, but instead I looked around for an alternative vendor.  I figured they’d all be pretty similar, so I quickly settled on Printful.

7. Since I’d never done business with Printful, I had to place another test order.

8. After a couple days, Printful emailed with with a new problem: Printing a white semi-transparent design on a black sweatshirt yields an unwanted gray color.  So I went back and revised the order.

9. Soon afterwards, Zazzle let me know my cancelled order was in the mail, rush order surcharge included!  In the past, Zazzle cancelled all items in an order if it flagged any item for copyright problems.  Now, apparently, it sends everything that wasn’t cancelled.  Argh.

10. A week later, I checked on my Printful order, and discovered that I had somehow failed to click the final “OK” after revising the gray sweatshirt snafu, so my test order was still in limbo.  Sigh.  So I fixed it again, double stampies no erasies.

11. A few days later, I finally got my Printful order.  The products looked good.  I was ready to go.  But when I went to the website to offer the products for sale to customers, I discovered that Printful – unlike Zazzle – makes selling designs a pain in the neck.  To do business on Printful, I’d first have to sign up for a totally separate vendor website, and then merge the two accounts.  Argh.

12. After trying this for a half hour, I realized that I would be better off going back to Zazzle.  So I dumped Printful and created a new Zazzle store, #FearMeNot, minus the disapproved design.  Happily, the Zazzle interface seemed to work just as seamlessly as I remembered.  You can order “Fear me not! I got my COVID vaccine” shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies now.  (Be sure to use the coupon code TUESDAYGIFTZ).

 

So at the end of this arduous and aggravating journey, I finally started selling my products to nudge the world to back to normalcy.  In a week or so, I’ll try to convince the Zazzle copyright people that my third design is legit.  (Even if Saturday Night Fever does have a copyright on all images of disco-dancers in white suits, my design should clearly be protected as parody).  Overall, I think this will be a positive experience for me.  The creative pleasure I’ve enjoyed plus the money I expect to make will probably exceed the subjective and financial cost of the dozen hassles I’ve already swallowed.

Still, a few more hassles could easily change my mind.  And selling t-shirts on Zazzle is virtually the lowest-hassle business I can imagine running.  Which makes me picture the horrors of creating and managing an actual business.

Indeed, I suspect that anyone who’s ever run an actual business has been rolling their eyes at my self-pity.  Twelve little snags?  Real entrepreneurs face more challenges every day.  Unlike me, they have to coordinate a long list of products, each with their own attendant baggage.  Unlike me, they have to manage a physical space.  Unlike me, they have to hire and direct employees.  And unlike me, they have to cope with a morass of government regulation.  I don’t care if actual businesspeople do roll their eyes at me; their can-do attitude in the face of endless obstacles still fills me with awe.

Note further that in this very blog post I’ve already publicly complained more about my business woes than most businesspeople ever will.  Are they stoic?  Do they realize that hardly anyone will sympathize with their plight?  Or are they just too busy making the trains run on time to stop and reflect?  All three answers make businesspeople look admirable indeed.  They don’t just make the world work.  They bear the suffering of the world in silence.  No wonder I love them!

What motivates businesspeople?  While the full answer is complex, the basic answer is clear: Money.  People run businesses to get richer – and ideally, to get rich.  And whenever I get a small taste of the challenges businesspeople overcome, not to mention the disrespect they endure in our society, I have to say that businesspeople earn every penny.  As someone who definitely does not want your job, entrepreneurs of the world, I thank you.

P.S. Put your customers at ease with a #FearMeNot shirt!

 

 

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Danone and the Future of Shareholder Capitalism

As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Danone SA’s Chief Executive and Chairman Emmanuel Faber has stepped down from the yogurt maker after a clash with investors, marking a rare victory for activist funds in France’s rigid corporate landscape.” This is an interesting piece of news, for two different reasons:

First of all, this is happening in France. CEOs and managers are entrenched all around the world, but all the more so in France, where the ranks of the ruling class are more close-knit than in most places.

Second, by ousting Monsieur Faber, those activist investors have actually signaled their lack of satisfaction with Danone’s performance under his tenure. Yet Monsieur Faber was a champion of “stakeholder capitalism,” and the press is seeing his ouster as a dispute between champions of stakeholder capitalism and a few nostalgic for shareholder capitalism. The fact that the latter simply exist in a world in which corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and stakeholder capitalism dominate the public discourse, is in a sense surprising. Or it could simply be that, given Monsieur Faber’s public profile, the press has unjustly described his critics as enemies of stakeholder capitalism, as a way to take sides with the CEO against the shareholders.

The New York Times writes:

Danone, which reported $28 billion in sales in its latest fiscal year, was the first public company to adopt the French legal framework of “Entreprise à Mission,” which allows companies to take greater consideration of social and environmental issues in their business model. Some 99 percent of shareholders, but not Artisan Partners, approved the move in June last year.

The turmoil raises the question whether business models that take all stakeholders into account can survive resistance from activist investors focused primarily on shareholder returns. Danone said in a statement announcing the management changes that it “believes in the necessity” of combining “high economic performance” with Danone’s “unique model of a purpose-driven company.”

This is an interesting way of framing the issue: “whether business models that take all stakeholders into account can survive resistance from activist investors focused primarily on shareholder returns”. Let’s try another version: whether public insistence over the need for a company to pursue goals other than profits isn’t a way for managers to be less transparent and accountable to their shareholders.

I have long thought that most of the stakeholder capitalism rhetoric was, whatever its left-leaning nuances, mostly conducive to further empowering managers against shareholders. The fact that you’re busy saving the world is a good excuse for a disappointing stock performance. But for a market economy to work properly, we do need a market in property rights, and we do need shareholders unwilling to drink the managers’ Kool-Aid. Let’s see how things go with Danone. The fact that such a corporate dispute is happening in France, as I said above, makes it all the more interesting.

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