How to Kill Your Successful Business In Five Easy Steps: Step 5

For those just joining us, this is a series. There’s a series of links at the bottom of this post, so you can start at the beginning if you like.

Step 5: Maintain Your Deathgrip Till The Bitter End

There’s something to be said for the person who says, “Honey, I don’t think this is going to work out.” For the member of the garage band who says, “I’m tired of playing these songs, and you aren’t, so I think it’s time I quit.” For the hairdresser who admits that she has fantasies of setting clients hair on fire, she’s so sick of the job, and for the CEO who steps aside in a crisis, to let someone a little better at the job take over.

This behaviour, gracious though it might be, is not what is necessary of one who wishes to kill a business. No, if you really want to kill a business dead, you must stay in charge even when confronted with the fact that you have no idea what to do, and maybe had no idea before, too, but simply didn’t realize it. It is a difficult thing to suppress this knowledge and ignore the natural implication — that you should maybe step aside and let someone who knows what she or he is doing take over — but if you wish to kill a business, it is necessary.

Even before I left, there were some clear signs of this being my boss using this strategy, actually.  I remember clearly when the day arrived that we were told it was absolutely imperative we dress up. That is, wear a suit and tie to the office. I found out later that it was some kind of emergency meeting with the shareholders, during which the company had asked for a fresh injection of funds to keep it going. I don’t know whether or not they got it, but the company limped on a few months more, so maybe they did. At the time, I had fantasies of contacting the investors and simply giving them a brief explanation of how the CEO had failed to do any serious market research — due diligence is an obligation in a company with shareholders, right? I even had a list of shareholders, and someone who was going to translate my informative letter into French so it wouldn’t be obvious it was me who’d written it. And the thing was, it really wasn’t about revenge: it was about competence. If I could see that proper research was not being carried out, surely the investors would see it. Surely they would put someone a little more sensible at the helm. (Shades of Step 5, which I’ll cover tomorrow.)

But I was scared to lose my job before finding a new one, and I wasn’t sure that the investors could actually have booted the CEO. She was very personable, very confident, even if to my mind her business acumen was sometimes quite dubious. (Incidentally, that’s how a lot of MBAs I’ve met seem to be — but this is just anecdotal, mind.)

After I left, a few months later, I got the occasional email from this or that person on staff. The company plodded along, pretty much along the same route it had seemed to be headed — focused on survival, bare survival, whatever it took.

This works well, when you’re a ship with a mutinous crew on board, or a collective of farmers in some feudal land, just trying to get through to next spring. But spring almost always brings green, verdure, and the hope of a new harvest. Software ideas and new business paradigms don’t sprout on the branches of trees, or up from the soil.

I don’t know what happened, specifically — whether the office stuff disappeared into the black hole of bankruptcy or was sold off before that. I do know that for a time, they were working out of the CEO’s home, which must have been a very interesting experience for the few remaining workers who were neither family nor on an executive salary.

I wonder, as I write this, when it actually became too late for the company. Companies, after all, can survive something like a mass exodus of their workers. (Even if it’s the best workers, and it never fails that the best workers in a family company are non-family-members, since they got there and stayed there by skill, not the family connection.) I noted that Step 4 was when it became truly too late for the company in terms of its original staff, but in fact, we’d lost two core staff members — our ergonomist and our project manager/head programmer — the year before and gone on for some time without apparent crisis. Maybe the company could have survived that latter exodus, at some point along the way, even if the exodus had become inevitable much earlier than I’ve suggested.

If you want to kill a business, and you’ve discovered you’re not the best CEO there could be, the best thing to do is simply to hang on for dear life, and stay, defiantly, on the ship as it sinks. This is the number one way to kill a successful company, and it tells us something about the nature of business: companies can do amazing things, award-winning and paradigm-changing things, and then fail because those things were easy, were step one in the long-term process of building a stable company. It’s sad, of course — the tutorials are no more, and I guess blind and visually impaired people are learning to use computers some other way now. It was a good product while it lasted, and it wasn’t the market that killed its maker: it was the way the company was run.

But maybe companies are supposed to die? Maybe they’re not supposed to last forever, or even very long? It makes me think of the balance between fires burning out old growth to let new trees come in, and the preservation of stability by controlling those same fires and not letting them burn out everything in the forest. It’s an interesting problem.

As for the company I’m talking about, I heard it went belly-up a few months after I’d moved to Korea. I don’t know the finer details, and I lost touch with most of the people who’d stayed on board till the bitter end. In fact, aside from a mix-up concerning my tax papers for that year, and my taxes as well, I hadn’t thought about the company in years. The fact is, I just found a business card from the ergonomist, Judith — who’d been on maternity leave through all of this — tucked in my big H.G. Wells book.

What I am gesticulating at, in my sedate way, is that I don’t really feel much of anything about this stuff. It’s funny, how eight years have dulled the emotions associated with this mess. It’s not a big deal to me, now. In fact, in the course of sorting out that tax mess, I had a brief email correspondence with the CEO, and she was nothing but cordial, and if a little unhelpful, probably as helpful as she could be.

By the way, in case you’re any of the people involved in this story: I haven’t used your name if I’ve written anything embarrassing or indictable about you, bear in mind, and while I have made great efforts not to take liberties with the truth, I may have remembered details wrong, or mixed up the chronology of certain events.

I ask only that you remember this: my motives for discussing this issue have much more to do with an experiment in storytelling and structure than any lingering lees of resentment I might feel. That foul-tasting, bitter wine was dumped down the drain ages ago, and I’ve since moved on to far more delicious draughts.

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