Monday, October 20, 2014

Entrepreneurs, Predators, Robber Barons and Martians

I had reason the other day to re-read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed" in the January 18, 2010 New Yorker (here).  I admire Gladwell but also have come to distrust him just a little, since his MO is to take academic papers and dumb-them-down for a general audience.  Sometimes he puts an odd twist on a topic--I assume--to create greater appeal for the masses.  It can be a twist that doesn't always seem to square with a more careful reading of the original research.

This bit of discomfit led me back to the source for his article, Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot's book From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.  Villette is a sociologist at AgroParisTech and Vuillermot a business historian at L'Universite de France Comte.  Written in 2005, the book was translated into English in 2009, presumably when Gladwell bumped into it and wrote his review.  The authors conclude that the captains of industry--and they study 32 of the richest men in the world--made their fortune neither by taking risk nor innovating, but by taking advantage of (often low-risk) market weaknesses and vulnerabilities. (In fact, the original French title was Portrait of the Businessman as Predator.)  The authors conclude that a successful businessman does whatever it takes competitively to dominate a market and then "once his fortune is made and he invests some of his profits in foundations that reflect the social values of his time, he is forgiven for everything, even if his early career was punctuated by numerous predatory acts."  Think Carnegie and libraries, Stanford and education, Gates and vaccines.

These are fighting words to the American business press, of course, leading purveyors of success literature.  Business Week was dismissive of the book, suggesting that little more could be expected of "pretentious, Marx-quoting" academics than "Continental disdain" of heroic CEOs.  "Modern commerce is rough," the BW reviewer wrote.  "If Western Europeans choose to sand the edges with greater regulation and more generous social benefits--as many do--well, that's their political choice to make."

The other sanding of edges, I discovered, was in Gladwell's article.  He had clearly emphasized the issue of how entrepreneurs succeed--entrepreneurs being among the hottest business terms in Google search, then and now.  However, Villette and Vuillermot said early and clearly in their work that they wished to dissociate "entrepreneur" and "businessman."  An entrepreneur brings innovation to market; the businessmen they studied had almost always acquired wealth first through inheritance or predatory (and sometimes unsavory) activities, and only then used innovation to produce additional profits.  These businessmen didn't invent canning technology, the authors wrote; they bought the canning factory.  Innovation, the franca lingua of a true entrepreneur, was perceived as expensive, risky and always came second.

Sam Walton admitted, for example, "Most everything I've done I've copied from somebody else."  That's hardly the signature of the modern disruptive entrepreneur.

Gladwell's subtitle, "How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed" was a red herring to (presumably) drive readership.  It should have read "How Already Rich Business Industrialists with Low Profiles for Risk and Innovation Succeed"--a long, long distance from what "The Sure Thing" purported to describe.  Fledgling entrepreneurs looking for advice would have been wrapped around the axle of Gladwell's interpretation, I suspect.

My own issue with the book was not so much the conclusion--I for one watched Bill Gates before he was a predator, while he was a predator, and after he was a predator--but the authors' reliance for their source material on generally laudatory, secondary biographies.  Primary source material and perhaps interviews with the living would have made for a stronger argument, especially when they were going for "original intent."

In working my way through this little academic conundrum, however, I was also entertained by a small battle brewing upon the very pages of my copy of Predators.  Let me explain.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a 1990s cult series shown on The Comedy Channel/Comedy Central that featured a man and two robot sidekicks imprisoned on a space station and forced to watch horrendous old science fiction movies.  The show was an absolute scream.  Of course, the original movies were awfully funny in their own right. (Check out, for example, a very young Pia Zadora in 1964's Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, possibly the worst movie ever made and just perfect for this year's post-Thanksgiving tryptophan festivities.)

I buy a lot of books and, whenever possible, try to find the "Used-Acceptable" versions for $.01 (with $3.99 shipping).  It's hard to go wrong for $4.00, though I quite often end up with (what look like) books stolen from libraries and texts that are marked up by students.  In this case, my used copy of Predators had been used by at least two students before me.  Let me introduce them to you: Mr. Irritated Red Marker, and Ms. Black Ink.  (I make an appearance as Mr. Yellow Highlighter.) They look something like this:

You can tell already that Ms. Black Ink is warming to the authors' argument.  It's not clear entirely where Mr. Red Marker stands, though that comes into focus over the next few pages.  Ms. Black Ink picks up on it, noting on page 8 that Mr. Red Marker is beginning to fall off the wagon.

This is about the time I had the flashback to the two robots locked in their space station throwing out barbed comments.  Finally on page 9 we reach a point of some clarity,  Ms. Black Ink finding the argument "so interesting" but Mr. Red Marker dismissing one paragraph in the Predator text with the simple comment, "Austrian."  (As in, I suppose, he kicked the dirt in disgust and muttered, "That's so Austrian.")

And then it came, at the very bottom.  Mr. Irritated Red Marker says the authors are dressing up their morality as research.  Meanwhile, Ms. Black Ink, who has clearly seen enough, says to Mr. Red Marker: "Shut up & read first."  I laughed out loud.  Of course, unless Mr. Red Marker sees this post he'll never know.  And, truth be told, he didn't shut up at all but carried on (and on throughout the book).  In fact, I wondered at times if Mr. Red Marker wasn't our Business Week reviewer. As for Ms. Black Ink, even though she knew Mr. Red Marker was history, I just think she just felt better.

This whole kerfuffle also reminded me of a famous debate in the pages of the 1954 Saturday Evening Post featuring Matthew Josephson, whose 1934 study of 19th-century American industrialists like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt gave us the term "Robber Baron."  Not unlike Villette and Vuillermot, Josephson saw America a "paradise of freebooting capitalists, untrammeled and untaxed. They demanded always a free hand in the market, promising that in enriching themselves they would 'build up the country.'"  Josephson credited them with growth but also blamed their ruthless excesses and poor leadership for the Great Depression.

Opposing Josephson was Allan Nevins, the Columbia historian who crafted glowing biographies of these same "robber barons," turning them into the driving forces for American prosperity.

The fact that Josephson wrote in the depths of the Great Depression when capitalism was teetering on the brink, and Nevins wrote after American industrial might had helped win WWII may have had something to do with their perspectives.  But their essential debate--Are we willing to overlook monopolistic practices and put up with ruthless predators if all ends well?--was playing out in 1934 and again in 1954, just as it played out in Business Week and on the pages of my copy of Predators between Mr. Red Marker and Ms. Black Ink.

This is a debate with legs, of course.  A few observers (like the now famous Thomas Piketty) believe we are heading into a new Gilded Age and the kind of income inequality that magnifies the predators in our midst.  Others are more charitable.  (For another good discussion, see here.)

As for Malcolm Gladwell: read and enjoy, but verify.  And as for choosing an entertaining movie for dozing post-feast Thanksgiving, nobody weaves the good with the bad as well as two little robots trapped in a movie theater by an evil space lord, watching a kidnapped Santa Claus escape the Martians.

You know--these are like cheap versions of the Lost in Space sets...